Josh Goodman of Governing magazine noticed that South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's political foes, ever-grasping for something to hit him with, have taken to calling him something truly Lovecraftian: "Libertarian." Goodman's meditations about the attack are worth reading.
There are a couple of reasons why, given this dilemma, Sanford's detractors—or any critic of a conservative—might try out "libertarian." One is that, in a country with such an entrenched two-party system, anything associated with third parties tends to be exotic. In effect, the message here is that Sanford is a gadfly, a crackpot, or somewhere in between.
The other reason is that "libertarian" is largely a blank slate. Most Americans aren't really very clear on what it means to be a liberal or a conservative. Except for a small, politically engaged group, I doubt they have any idea what it means to be a libertarian. If Democrats set out to brand Republicans as libertarians and libertarians as bad, it's not as though most people will say to themselves, "But Republicans views on the War on Drugs are completely antithetical to the libertarian ethos!"
That said, in a country dedicated to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," I'd have to think that "libertarian" comes with at least some intrinsic positive connotations. Sanford, for one, doesn't seem too worried about the term. "I'm an unabashed conservative," he told me, "and sometimes accused of being a libertarian, to which I say, 'I'm guilty, I love liberty.' "
I've gotten the sense all year that "libertarian" is becoming a stronger and stronger brand. The much-debated Ron Paul movement was, in the agregate, a good thing for the brand. He flew just high enough for people to take notice of him without associating him, forever, with the worst decisions of his career. (Maybe this isn't surprising, in a world where Pat "drummed out of the conservative movement" Buchanan is still a highly-paid pundit.) Thanks to Paul the word became associated with old-line conservativism and maverick Republicanism that, while mildly kooky, stood against the mainstream Republicanism that was becoming as popular as a wet Siamese cat with a maw full of parasites and fire ants. I see this as more of an opening than a long-term trend. But it's enough of an opening to help out the Mark Sanfords of the world, as few as they sadly are.