What’s In A Name? If You’re Phil Angelides, Plenty.

What’s in a name?” the fair heroine asks her star-crossed lover in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Juliet concludes.

But that was before anybody met Phil Angelides. The state treasurer and Democratic gubernatorial candidate has a long history of gratuitous name-calling—and no one would ever mistake his over-the-top epithets and nasty appellations for a sweet-smelling posie.

The snarky Angelides once referred to Ronald Reagan as a racist. Reagan may have been oblivious to the plight of the minority underclasses, but few who knew him could think of this avuncular optimist as being racially motivated or biased.

In 1991, as chair of the California Democratic Party, Angelides compared Gov. Pete Wilson to David Duke. Now, along with most Democrats, Wilson is not one of my favorite former governors. But it’s a tad of a stretch to liken him to a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan—a comment a Los Angeles Times editorial termed “ugly” and “uncalled for.”

Just last fall, when the Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the same-sex marriage bill, Angelides put out a press release equating Schwarzenegger to both George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. I’ve been pretty critical of Arnold since he took office, but likening this generally moderate officeholder to two hard-core Southern segregationists is, well, a bit hyperbolic.

But Angelides’ name-calling and vitriol hasn’t been limited just to those in the other party.

In 1991, while serving as state Democratic chair, he publicly described Democratic United States senators as “wimps.”

In the ’94 Democratic primary for state treasurer, Angelides ran ads against former state Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti outrageously accusing this very decent man and honorable Democrat of condoning the murder of abortion doctors and of being a crook.

Almost every California newspaper roundly condemned Angelides’ character-assassination campaign. The San Jose Mercury News called his tactics “rapacious.” Longtime Los Angeles Times political columnist George Skelton denounced one Angelides’ ad as “odorous” and “one of the sleaziest in years.” The Orange County Register labeled him a “smearmeister.” The San Francisco Chronicle blasted the negative campaign as “reprehensible” and “a new low,” and compared the ads to the infamous Willie Horton spot from the ’88 presidential campaign. The Los Angeles Daily News called it “hysterical mudslinging.” The Fresno Bee condemned Angelides’ campaigning as “tasteless.”

Even one of Angelides’ predecessors as state Democratic Party chair, Peter Kelly, denounced Angelides in a letter as “disgusting.”

And the nonpartisan California Journal awarded Angelides their “Junkyard Dog of the Year” award for his campaign’s “boorishness,” accusing him of “ringing a slime-coated cowbell.”

Well, you get the drift—arf, arf.

Now, fast forward to the current campaign, only the second time Angelides has ever faced a viable Democratic primary opponent. Angelides has tagged Steve Westly as a “Benedict Arnold” for joining Gov. Schwarzenegger—and every other major Democratic officeholder in the state except Angelides—in 2004 in support of the deficit-reduction bond that kept the state out of default. Other charming terms he has laid on Westly for this same supposed offense are “Arnold Lite” and “Arnold’s Twin.”

But at the two candidates’ third and final debate, Angelides really decided to go postal. In the course of just one hour, he likened Westly to, of all people, Richard Nixon, Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh—and asked Westly, a 25-year Democratic activist and former party officer, to his face whether he wasn’t running in the wrong party primary.

Hell, for that matter, Angelides has even called me names. At the state Democratic convention last month, he denounced me by name as the “King of Mean.” (I guess this is a backhanded compliment coming from a guy the Washington Post once called a “champion smear artist.”)

I suppose we really shouldn’t be surprised. In 1991, Angelides told the Modesto Bee he admired the Republican attack machine that made mincemeat of his pal, Michael Dukakis. “Sometimes you’ve got to scream at someone, hit them over the head with a 2-by-4 or punch them,” he told the Los Angeles Times that same year. The next year, he asked the St. Petersburg Times, “Do I think it is legitimate for us to punch [Republicans] in the groin? Absolutely.”

In April of ’92, he promised the New York Times that in the upcoming presidential campaign, “We’re going to play tough. Let me tell you right now, it’s going to be a mean, vicious, ugly campaign.” And it certainly would have been had Angelides, instead of Bill Clinton, had his way. (Probably a losing one, too.)

But did this supposedly brilliant fellow learn nothing whatsoever from the near self-immolation last year of Schwarzenegger, the man Angelides most loves to hate? The governor’s quick and almost-disastrous slide into public opprobrium came about in large part because he promised to be a bipartisan problem-solver, but quickly metamorphosed into a partisan name-caller.

Democrats were “girlie men,” “the Three Stooges” and “losers.” Teachers and their state organization were “those poor little guys.” Labor unions were “evil.” Nurses were “special interests,” and he would “kick their butts.”

In the Arnold biography “Fantastic,” author Laurence Leamer observes of Schwarzenegger’s practice against his bodybuilding opponents: “It was not enough for Arnold to defeat his opponent. He had to taunt and denigrate him until there was little left but bad memories.” Stripped of the pecs and abs, this could be a perfect description of Phil Angelides and his campaign history.

So, if voters were fed up with a partisan name-caller last year, why would they take to a bipartisan name-caller this year?

To be Phil or not to be Phil. That’s the soul-searching question Democrats must grapple with as they choose their nominee in the June primary.