(CNN) -- Harry Reid recently sallied forth with a series of attacks on Mitt Romney that had the desired effect. It created headlines. It stirred up the anti-Romney base of the Democratic Party. And it really irritated the Romney camp.
It has produced waves of condemnation because of the unsubstantiated assertions that Romney didn't pay taxes for a decade. Reince Preibus, head of the Republican National Committee, called Reid "a dirty liar." Democrats responded that this was a problem Romney brought on himself. All he would have to do is release his tax returns to end the dust-up.
But of course, this is one dust-up that will never end. Because in modern politics it seems the goal is to constantly find ways to smear the opposition, facts and decency be damned. That's the reason the birther lie endures. That's the reason that John Kerry, whose military service was distinguished, could be besmirched by the "swift boaters" and a host of political opponents who hadn't anything like his record of service. And because both sides do it to one another, it is considered to be fair play.
Only in politics can what's clearly foul be fair.
Support his policies or oppose them, no one is for one minute suggesting that Mitt Romney did anything other than obey the tax laws of the United States. The reason that Democrats want to see the tax returns is not because they think he did something wrong but because he did something that might look unseemly. Like he was a rich guy taking advantage of loopholes. That virtually anyone in his position would do so is irrelevant. It's all about the smear.
The same is true with the attacks on Romney's tenure at Bain Capital. Romney is not being attacked for breaking the law (except by a few semanticists, who seem to be naïvely, yet deliberately, suggesting it was not possible for him to be chairman on paper but to be taking a leave of absence from daily operating responsibilities).
He is being attacked because it might look bad that companies he was involved with actually outsourced jobs or fired people. That he was fulfilling his responsibility to his shareholders in doing so and that the record of Bain was fairly good in terms of value creation is irrelevant when the objective is creating a negative narrative at all costs.
I have voted Democrat all my life. I served in the Clinton administration and worked for a Democratic congressman on Capitol Hill. I will vote for President Obama. But I deplore these tactics.
When Harry Reid goes on the floor of the Senate and makes assertions like he did, he demeans the institution. Which is saying something about an institution that is as dysfunctional as the U.S. Senate.
When the Obama team systematically goes after Romney for his business background, it makes sense as a political tactic, but it reveals deep insecurity about his case for re-election and it alienates the business community unnecessarily. As my old boss, the late Ron Brown, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, used to say, "You can't be for jobs and against the people who create them."
America is facing unprecedented challenges. Our economy doesn't work the way it once did. It is growing more slowly. It is rebounding from crisis more slowly. It is not creating jobs as it has. It is not creating wealth for the population at large the way it used to. Inequality is growing. Our competitiveness is faltering even as competition is growing. Yet we have great opportunities before us.
A new energy mix can free us of dependency on dangerous nations, create jobs and a cleaner environment at home. Our economy is well poised to lead a "Third Industrial Revolution," driven by high value-added manufacturing in which intellectual capital, the kind we create especially well, is the critical input. We protect that capital better than many of our competitors, too.
We're in a position to remake our infrastructure, as must be done thanks to very low interest rates, if only we could come to understand the difference between spending and investing. We need to rethink our convoluted tax structure, our broken fiscal system, our corrupt campaign finance system and the way we defend ourselves and project our force worldwide. It is beyond arguing that we need to do something about gun control in this country.
These are great issues calling for serious debate. And we actually have two candidates for president who are credible, serious men. But they are running a campaign that has the sensibilities and IQ of a typical middle school student council election. With the values of an episode of "Real Housewives" or "Big Brother."
Apparently, the candidates and their advisers think that is what will work with us. They think we don't see the big problems, care about them or understand them. They think that throwing mud and unsubstantiated claims and getting bogged down in distractions will tip the scales in their favor.
So the sad punch line to all this pettiness is that in a campaign laden with name calling, the biggest insult of all is the one that is being directed at the American people.
Amid all the dirt and the shallowness, this is the one that should produce the greatest outrage. But of all of them, it's also the only one that could produce any good at all. It could get us to act and demand more and to reject negative campaigns.
Take it personally. Every time you hear a politician sling mud at an opponent rather than addressing a real issue, recognize that you're the one being dissed. Then do us all a favor and vote your anger.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Rothkopf.