‘HILLARY CLINTON seems to have a lot of anger. I don’t think the American people, if you look historically, elect angry candidates.” So said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Of all the insults you can hurl at Hillary Clinton -- and I’ve hurled a few myself -- surely the weirdest is that she’s “angry.” Passionless? Yes. Robotic? Definitely. But angry? I’ve seen ATM machines angrier than her. Her voice never wavers from a flat, dull monotone. Her gesticulations are limp. And it’s not just on the surface.
Since joining the Senate, she has cozied up to her worst enemies, people who all but accused her of practicing witchcraft, and made nice with them. Whatever the polar opposite of angry is, it’s her.
Yet Mehlman is widely understood to be signaling the main line of attack that Republicans will deploy against Clinton. What’s behind such a strange charge?
Part of it is the Republican habit of calling anybody who makes a sharp criticism of President Bush “angry.” They have further conflated anti-Bush “anger” with left-wing radicalism. The term of art that has made its way into mainstream news coverage is “angry Bush-hating left.” The implicit suggestion is that anybody who disagrees too sharply with Bush is angry, and therefore ideologically radical, and therefore shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
In reality, “anger” at Bush has little to do with ideology. The president is disdained with roughly equal passion by the moderates at the Democratic Leadership Council and the true lefty activists in the party who hate their wishy-washy guts.
Plenty of Republicans also believe Bush has been an abject disaster as a president, though they tend not to say so publicly. Clinton is a certifiable moderate who thinks that Bush is a historically awful president. Republicans want to define that category -- strongly anti-Bush moderates -- out of existence.
THE MAIN STORY here, though, is that the GOP is trying to find a way to adapt its patterns of characterological attack to a potential female candidate. Think of the criticisms you have heard about previous (male) Democratic candidates. The most popular one is “flip-flopper,” a charge leveled with equal fervor against Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry. Before the last election, top Republicans also put the word out in the media that they called John Edwards the “Breck girl” and that Kerry “looks French.”
The subtext of all this isn’t very subtle. As the liberal writer Naomi Wolfe wrote in 2004: “Listen to what the Republicans are hitting Kerry with: Indecisive. Effete. French. They are all but calling this tall, accomplished war hero gay.” Well, gay may be a bit strong, but they were certainly trying to question the Democrats’ manliness.
The formula has worked brilliantly. After all, in every presidential election since 1992, polls showed the Democrats have had the advantage on most issues but the disadvantage on perceptions of character. (People voted for Clinton even though he was a flip-flopping, blow-dried draft-dodger.)
The trouble, of course, is that you can’t very well run against a female candidate by calling her unmanly. So the best substitute is to call her unwomanly instead. Rather than act perky and cheerful, she’s angry. There’s a bad word that’s supposed to spring to mind when you think of her, and it begins with the letter “b.”
Not coincidentally, Republicans employed the same strategy the one previous time the Democrats put a woman on the presidential ticket. Barbara Bush memorably said of Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro, “I can’t say it, but it rhymes with ‘rich.’ ”
It was an effective insult, but it came across as crude. The art of character assassination has evolved considerably since then. “Angry” does the job so much more cleanly and effectively.