Call an American politician a crook, a scoundrel or a liar, and it's water off a duck's back. If you really want to wound him, call him a liberal. So it is that Bob Dole, far behind in the polls, has in desperation unsheathed what Ronald Reagan dubbed "the L-word".
In the forthcoming presidential debates, Mr Dole vows daily to go after "that liberal, liberal, liberal Bill Clinton". The occupant of the White House is variously a "dyed-in-the-wool liberal," an "old-style liberal", or a "closet liberal" who will show his true colours once the election is over.
In fact, the challenger is taking his cue from the Republican ideologist- in-chief, Newt Gingrich. No-one wields the L-word more brutally than the Speaker of the House. His opponents are not Democrats, but `liberal Democrats' - not to be confused with the political party recently assembled in Brighton. Sometimes he expands the term to "pathetic liberal Democrats", scarcely distinguishable from the Reds that Senator Joseph McCarthy once hunted.
Here, the original free market, libertarian and Whiggish connotations of the term have vanished entirely (Indeed, America's Whigs were the forerunners of the Republican Party). Liberals, as depicted by Messrs Dole and Gingrich, love high taxes, big government, foreign cars and mass murderers, and would sell out the country to the UN before you can say Boutros-Ghali.
Such is the downfall of a once noble word in America's political lexicon, under whose banner John Kennedy and Harry Truman marched - not to mention this century's greatest President, Franklin Roosevelt. Today's liberalism is a faith that dares not speak its name. A Democrat will call himself a "moderate", a "progressive", even "caring"; anything to avoid the L- word.
Such reluctance is understandable. It was "Sixties-liberalism" which wrecked things. Ever since, Republicans have used the L-word to batter hapless Democratic candidates for the White House. Hubert Hum- phrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis were all were fatally painted as "liberals" out of touch with the "silent majority".
Since 1968, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have been the only exceptions, suggesting that for a Democrat the only antidote is solid red-neck credentials. Which is why, out on the campaign trail, the Clinton grin widens and his southern drawl deepens: a good-ol'-boy cannot be a liberal. Yet even Clinton is not entirely safe.
He may be an elusive target, tough on crime and values, agreeing to scrap FDR's federally guaranteed welfare for the poor, and generally stealing Republican issues by the dozen. But the Bill Clinton who opposed the Vietnam war and smoked (but did not inhale) marijuana was once the classic Sixties liberal.
Perhaps Mr Dole's last hope is to prove he still is.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies