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Kathleen Reardon Headshot

Why Republicans Get to Cry

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On 60 Minutes Sunday you may have seen a story about John Boehner, presumptive speaker of the House. He cried a few times, almost losing it once. And yet he's one of the most powerful people in Washington.

While it's interesting that men like George Bush, Mitt Romney, and John Boehner are allowing themselves to cry publicly, behind this seemingly harmless shift in acceptance is one of the ways that the Republicans are managing the narrative. They know that President Obama can't cry, at least not without risk. He is considered a weak compromiser, whereas John Boehner says that he does not like the word compromise. He'll consider "common ground," but that's all.

When you're perceived as weak, crying makes you appear even weaker. When you aren't leading effectively, crying can be that last straw. But if you are developing a persona of toughness, it pays to shed a tear now and then.

Men get to cry with impunity lately, especially those considered tough, stiff, distant, difficult, demanding or dispassionate. The context matters; nowadays in politics talking about old friends, soldiers, children, harm done to one's family, or personal challenges provide opportunities when a tear or two can do more good than harm.

Republican crying is more acceptable than Democratic crying because liberals are expected to be softer - "bleeding hearts." Republicans are perceived as tougher, less sensitive, often more concerned with business priorities. So, crying works well for them. It's the violation of expectations that makes conservative crying persuasive. It's the beauty of not being predictable.

Women, whether in business or politics, are in a more difficult position with regard to any sort of emoting. Since it is expected of them, crying doesn't serve as a balancing technique. It merely confirms that they are soft. Of course, if a woman like Margaret Thatcher were to shed a tear, it would violate expectations and in the right context might serve her well -- once or twice.

Yet the tough Nancy Pelosi won't take that risk. When asked about John Boehner's tendency to cry, Pelosi responded:

You know what? He is known to cry. He cries sometimes when we're having a debate on bills. If I cry, it's about the personal loss of a friend or something like that. But when it comes to politics -- no, I don't cry. I would never think of crying about any loss of an office, because that's always a possibility, and if you're professional, then you deal with it professionally.

You can't blame Pelosi. She remembers what happened to Hillary Clinton.

The Republicans know they have a strategy most Democrats won't use. To put it in communication terms, crying on one side of the aisle but not the other indicates that Democrats are keeping their communication repertoire limited, while the Republicans are broadening theirs.

This is interesting if you're an observer of human nature, much more so if you are an observer of politics. Republicans have learned the value of having it both ways. They realize that showing your soft side in public is an effective way to rebut perceptions that you are heartless. They figure: Who can dislike a man who cries when he sees a child reciting the Pledge of Allegiance?

These Republicans grasp that human complexity can be a strategy. While the president keeps his cool and dispassionately delivers his views, some people are impressed. But it's ironic that the "soft" party is acting tough when they're not, and the "tough" party is acting sensitive.

It's enough to make you cry.

Kathleen also blogs at comebacksatwork. Also at Twitter: @comebackskid