There are two kinds of insults. The first type doesn’t let the insulter deny that he is, in fact, hurling an insult. When Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle, “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” that was a deliberate, nonrefundable dis. When Ann Coulter called John Edwards a “faggot,” there was no mistaking her words—the shock value was the point.

The second kind, however, gives the insult-thrower deniability. It lets you throw up your hands and say, “Who, me?” One example was the way Barack Obama would thank John McCain for his “half-century of service,” to remind people of McCain’s age while guising it as a compliment.

The whole “Barack Hussein Obama” meme falls into the latter category, too. First, talk radio host Bill Cunningham repeatedly called the senator by his full name—a move John McCain quickly criticized. Now, the Tennessee Republican Party is defending its decision to use the same formulation in party literature. According to the Knoxville News Sentinel :  

[Tennessee GOP Chairman Robin] Smith said today that McCain’s comments do not change the state party’s stance and the state GOP will continue to use Obama’s middle name. That’s no different than saying “Hillary Rodham Clinton” or “Richard Milhouse Nixon,” she said.

It wouldn’t be the first time full names have been used for effect. Critics of George Herbert Walker Bush delighted in using his full name to emphasize his WASPiness. Same with enemies of J. Danforth Quayle, whose upper-crust name conjures images of argyle sweaters and croquet matches. (The modern equivalent would have to be 50 Cent, whose rivals took pleasure in calling him by his real name, Curtis , which he later embraced as the title of his third album.)

But “Hussein” is different, for obvious reasons. In the Tennessee GOP case, as with Cunningham, they’re using it to provoke associations with Saddam Hussein or, less explicitly, that whole scary part of the world east of Israel. The What did I do? deniability claim makes it all the more insidious. But it raises a question: Will it become taboo among Democrats to call Obama by his full name? And if so, isn’t that a problem? Among presidents, it’s common practice to use all three names—JFK, LBJ, William Jefferson Clinton. If Obama wins the presidency, would that be suddenly off limits, as if to utter his full name is to demean the man and the office?

Not for long, I imagine. An equal and opposite backlash would probably emerge to keep the PC outrage in check. Can we just please use his name without being called racist? would be the rallying cry. Perhaps Obama would have to give a speech about his name, like Romney addressed his Mormonism. But that’s a long way off and in a hypothetical universe. Until then, Obama could become the first presidential nominee whose name is itself a slur.