third rail

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third rail

An issue or topic that is so controversial that it would immediately damage or destroy one's political career or credibility. An allusion to the electrified rail that powers electric railway systems, its figurative sense is almost exclusively used in relation to politics. Primarily heard in US. I wouldn't even bring it up—trying to withdraw people's social security benefits has long been the third rail of politics. Any talk of dismantling or reforming the current healthcare system has been a political third rail for the last two decades or so.
See also: rail, third

third rail

Something that is dangerous to tamper with, as in Anything concerning veterans is a political third rail. This term alludes to the rail that supplies the high voltage powering an electric train, so called since 1918. On the other hand, grab hold of the third rail means "become energized." Both shifts from the original meaning date from the late 1900s.
See also: rail, third
References in periodicals archive ?
"After that board meeting and after the attorney general's letter, the third rail of politics would be to mess with SQ 788."
<br />Stringer said his intent wasn't to make a racially charged statement and while he apologized to anyone he offended with his comments, he said pointing out that 60 percent of students in Arizona's public school are children of color is "not a racist comment, it's a statement of fact." <br />"I maybe touched a third rail of politics but what I said is accurate," he said.
But it would be silly to devote further space to this subject, third rail of politics that it is.
It truly deserves its reputation as the third rail of politics, a reference to the third rail that carries the electric current with the obvious meaning that any politician who touches it will die.
The program, he says, is "the third rail of politics. Touch it and you're dead." Proposing benefit cuts for current or soon-to-be retirees would sound the death knell for most elected officials.