HILLARY….RNC chairman Ken Mehlman rather bizarrely referred to the almost robotic Hillary Clinton as “angry” this week, and Jon Chait wonders what’s going on. His conclusion: it’s a mirror image of the same attack that Republicans routinely hurl at Democratic male candidates.

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 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.”

Actually, I think Jon is pulling his punches here. After all, there’s another word that conservatives routinely associate with “unwomanly,” and it’s not “bitch.” Here is National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez last year pretending to tsk-tsk Ed Klein over his recent 336-page hit piece on Hillary:

NRO: How many times do you use the word “lesbian” in your book? Why point out she had friends who were lesbians? Do we need to go there?

Klein: Hillary?s politics were shaped by the culture of radical feminism and lesbianism at Wellesley College in the 1960s. This is paramount in exploring the political life of Hillary Clinton.

Paramount indeed. This is not exactly subtle stuff, boys and girls, and when Mehlman calls Hillary “angry” he’s just test driving a slightly more subtle version of Klein’s juvenile attack.

Oddly enough, though, I think these folks may be playing right into Hillary’s hands. Here’s the thing: conservatives have built up this image of Hillary as a man-hating, ball-busting, radical feminist revolutionary, and a lot of people believe it. But if she runs in 2008, these same people are going to see her ? as opposed to hearing about her ? for the first time, and they’re going to be shocked. On TV, she comes across as cool, sober, well-informed, self-deprecating, and fairly appealing. Nothing at all like the fire-breathing Rush Limbaugh caricature.

In a sense, people like Klein and Mehlman are just setting a very low bar for Hillary to cross. When the campaign starts, all she has to do is exceed expectations in order to get people to start thinking about her differently, and Republicans are making that pretty easy. I don’t know if Hillary will run, and I don’t know if she can win, but if she does I think a lot of people are going to be surprised at just how many people change their minds about her once they see her in action for the first time.

FURTHER READING: Carl Cannon makes the argument that Hillary can win in 2008 here. Amy Sullivan takes the opposite side here. For a closer look at the Hillary Clinton machine, Ryan Lizza takes you on a tour of Hillaryland here.

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