NEW YORK – The Republican national chairman created a furor this week when he suggested Sen. Hillary Clinton is too "angry" to win the White House in 2008. And to hear Republicans tell it, Clinton is just one of many Democrats with an anger management problem.
In recent months, GOP operatives and officeholders have cast the Democrats as the anger party, long on emotion and short on ideas. Analysts say the strategy has been effective, trivializing Democrats' differences with the GOP as temperamental rather than substantive.
"Angry people are not nice people. They are people to stay away from. They explode now and then," said George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley. His book "Don't Think of an Elephant" has become something of a Bible for Democrats trying to improve their communication with voters.
Political history is dotted with failed presidential candidates perceived by the voters as too angry — think of Howard Dean's famous scream in 2004, or Bob Dole admonishing George H.W. Bush in 1988 to "stop lying about my record." Both parties' most revered figures in recent years, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, projected optimism and hope.
The latest example of the anger strategy came Sunday, when Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman said on ABC that Clinton "seems to have a lot of anger." He cited comments she made in Harlem on Martin Luther King Day in which she likened the Republican-led House to a "plantation" and called the Bush administration "one of the worst" in history.
"I don't think the American people, if you look historically, elect angry candidates," Mehlman said.
Democrats defended Clinton.
"Democrats want a leader who shares their frustration — even anger — about Republican failures," Democratic strategist Dan Newman said. "Anger at terrorists is expected, outrage about corruption is a plus."
Some Democrats, in fact, complained that Clinton doesn't get angry enough. Some also denounced Mehlman as mean-spirited, and smelled more than a whiff of sexism in his remarks.
"It's the stereotype of the crone — angry, nasty, but powerful," Lakoff said.
RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt dismissed the charge of sexism, saying the anger strategy was fully justified when Democrats launch personal attacks. She cited Dean's description of Republicans as "brain dead" last year, and Reid's calling President Bush a "loser."
"Whether she's a man or a woman is completely irrelevant. If some Democrats want to fall back on the gender card, that's their prerogative," Schmitt said.
Other examples of the anger strategy abound. Last summer, with chief White House political adviser Karl Rove under investigation in the CIA leak case, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, denounced Democrats' criticism of Rove as "more of the same kind of anger and lashing out that has become the substitute for bipartisan action and progress."
Last month, after Gore criticized the president for approving warrantless eavesdropping on terror suspects, Schmitt retorted: "While the president works to protect Americans from terrorists, Democrats deliver no solutions of their own, only diatribes laden with inaccuracies and anger."
Bush himself touched on the anger theme in his recent State of the Union Address, saying: "Our differences cannot be allowed to harden into anger."
For her part, Clinton — calmly — dismissed Mehlman's remarks as a diversion from serious issues and the Republicans' "many failures and shortcomings."
But even she has employed the anger strategy. Six years ago, as a Senate candidate in New York, Clinton questioned the temperament of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was expected to be her Republican opponent.
Giuliani "gets angry very often," Clinton said. "I don't see the point in getting angry all the time and expending all the energy when we could be figuring out a better way to take care of people."