Rough and tumble, attack-dog style political campaigns are sometimes referred to as pitbull politics.
In the same way, a pitbull politician is one who is relentlessly aggressive and doggedly partisan.
The term dates back at least to the late 20th century. In 1988, William Safire wrote about pit bull politics in one of his famous On Language columns for the New York Times. Safire noted that George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle had been described as “a couple of pitbulls” – but he also noted that some animal lovers were offended by the use of the phrase, which had a strongly negative connotation.
“It’s unfair that the term pitbull is being used,” Andy Johnson of the United Kennel Club told Safire, “to make the dogs suffer from adverse publicity.”
He added, “just as with any breed, some may be dangerous, but that’s not true of the majority.”
Even so, the term pit bull persisted. President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, was also known as the president’s pit bull. When Sununu eventually resigned amid controversies, the Baltimore Sun wrote,
“Mr. Sununu, whose abrasive style earned him the title “pitbull” of the presidency and left him with few allies and many powerful enemies, was undone by political missteps that proved increasingly embarrassing for Mr. Bush.”
Decades after George H.W. Bush left office, his son had his own pit bull moment in the press. Ed Gillespie was the chair of the Republican National Committee and eventually served as counselor to President George W. Bush. Even before he worked in the White House, Gillespie was known as one of the president’s staunchest allies.
A 2004 article in the New York Times described Gillespie as “President Bush’s pitbull.”
“Almost everywhere he goes these days, Ed Gillespie, the chairman of the Republican Party, hears himself introduced as ”President Bush’s pitbull.”
At fundraisers, on talk shows and in debates this campaign season, Mr. Gillespie has been willing to bare his teeth and emit a few menacing growls, accusing the likely Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry, of flip-flopping and liberal myopia.”
Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor who was John McCain’s running mate against Barack Obama, was also frequently described as a “pitbull” in the press. A Daily News headline from 2008 screamed “Hillary Clinton hits the road to collar ‘pitbull’ Sarah Palin.” Palin proudly owned the title of pitbull. In a memorable speech Palin, a self-described “hockey mom” herself, said, “I love those hockey moms. You know the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull? Lipstick.”