Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Politics of Clint Eastwood's empty chair

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
September 18, 2012 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
John Avlon says Clint Eastwood's empty chair was a symbol of what's wrong with political debate in America.
John Avlon says Clint Eastwood's empty chair was a symbol of what's wrong with political debate in America.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: Eastwood's empty chair points to the gap between campaign talk, reality
  • He says partisans on both sides distort their opponents' views, play loose with facts
  • Avlon: The distortions are particularly apparent on issues such as health care, Medicare
  • He says the convention gives President Obama a chance to sketch a second-term agenda

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- Clint Eastwood's rambling speech to an empty chair in Tampa, Florida, was more than just awkward performance art on a political stage. 

It actually provided a useful metaphor for one of the most nauseating aspects of this presidential election -- the growing gap between narrative and facts.

One of my favorite quotes is by the late, great Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts." But because of the rise of partisan media, amplified by the echo chamber of the Internet and talk radio, today everyone comes to civic debates armed with their own facts.

John Avlon
John Avlon

And so civic debates get debased, becoming more intense but more incoherent.  The Politics of the Empty Chair allows narratives to take the place of facts and usher in an essentially fictitious debate, inspiring monologues that feel like dialogues.

It's the political equivalent of shadowboxing, intellectual combat with a fear-fueled misrepresentation of your opponent. The funniest comment about Eastwood's performance came via Twitter from Nation writer Jamelle Bouie: "This is a perfect representation of the campaign: An old white man arguing with an imaginary Barack Obama."

Eastwood explains his RNC speech
Eastwood's RNC good, bad and ugly
Social media and Eastwood's RNC speech
Behind-the-scenes on Clint Eastwood

So Obama becomes a noncitizen and closet communist hell-bent on subverting the American experiment because he has a racial chip on his shoulder. On the flip side, Mitt Romney somehow wants to bring this country back to the 1950s, reimposing not just the Bush years but the white-bread world of prefeminist, segregation-era America. 

Both visions are nonsense, but both narratives have their adherents on the fringe, which is increasingly blurring with the base of each party.

This unfortunately extends to the policy arena as well.  So the heated debate over Obamacare is intentionally mischaracterized as a "government takeover of health care" despite that there's no public option for health insurance, let alone a single payer. 

Whatever its many flaws, the individual mandate was a plan initially put forward by the conservative Heritage Foundation, proposed by Republicans as an alternative to "Hillary Care" in the 1990s. It was implemented in his state by Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who argued it advanced the virtue of personal responsibility. But "government takeover of health care" polls better, and so it is repeated in the echo chamber until facts start to fade.  This is the Politics of the Empty Chair.

In the Politics of the Empty Chair, when a bipartisan group such as the Tax Policy Center criticizes primary opponent Rick Perry's tax plan, Romney holds up their analysis as impartial. But when they scrutinize his tax plan and find that it would actually raise taxes on middle class households by removing tax credits and deductions to pay for additional tax cuts for upper-income voters, it is attacked as blatantly partisan, not fit for decent conversation. 

In the Politics of the Empty Chair, the only facts acknowledged are ones that conform to political self-interest.

There are epic ironies when the Politics of the Empty Chair takes center stage. The only mention of the ongoing war in Afghanistan on the Republican convention's final night came not from Romney, but Clint Eastwood, who offered a line that implied we never should have gone there in the first place and that Obama should have removed troops immediately rather than offering a timeline.  This got huge applause in the hall because it was a criticism of Obama. The fact that it would have been seen as a seditious attack on Bush-era policy just four years before was ignored.  Even wars fade from view in the Politics of the Empty Chair.

The most credible criticism of Obama is that the deficit and debt have exploded under his watch. But even on this solid ground, the Politics of the Empty Chair creeps in, ignoring the fact that surpluses were turned into deficits under President George W. Bush and that the Romney-Ryan deficit reduction plan, such as it exists, could actually increase the deficit by prioritizing additional tax cuts and making military spending 4% of GDP. 

The Politics of the Empty Chair allows Paul Ryan to criticize Obama for ignoring the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson Commission, while conveniently ignoring the fact that he himself voted against the Bowles-Simpson commission. No one talks back when you're debating an empty chair.

The Democrats have their own examples of Empty Chair politics, most notably when entitlement reform is proposed as part of plans to reduce the deficit and the debt. Whenever Republicans propose Medicare reform, liberals reflexively reply with Medi-Scare tactics, trying to scare seniors about reforms that would not effect them. This was captured by a particularly ugly 2011 campaign ad showing "Paul Ryan" literally pushing grandma off a cliff. 

Now Ryan, Romney and company are trying to deflect attention from the details of that Medicare plan with Medi-Scare tactics of their own, talking incessantly about how Obama's health care law will cut $716 billion from current seniors. This is an equally cynical attempt to attack and distract -- especially because Ryan's plan keeps such long-term efficiency savings in place -- all part of an effort to confuse seniors and blur contrasts before Election Day.

The latest parlor game in the Politics of the Empty Chair is paranoid musing about just what Obama will try to accomplish in an "unaccountable" second term.  This argument implicitly acknowledges that maybe Obama hasn't been as radical as advertised in his first term -- the Republic still stands and the Constitution is not yet confetti -- but just wait until he gets his hands on that second term: then the hammer and sickle will start flying over the White House in earnest.

But Obama has enabled the Politics of the Empty Chair to flourish by too often putting oratory above operational action and by his campaign's failure to lay out a clear second-term agenda. To try to stop the Politics of the Empty Chair in Charlotte, criticisms of the Romney-Ryan ticket should be backed up with stats and facts. (This is, I know, too much to hope, but it would be good politics as well as good policy).

Perhaps even more importantly, Obama needs to lay out a clear agenda for the second term in his convention speech -- not just poll-tested bromides about defending the middle class, but actual plans, including an alternative path to deficit reduction that takes on some sacred cows on the left, including entitlement reform.

Members of the echo chamber love the Politics of the Empty Chair because it allows them to speak for the opposition, creating their own cartoon images, demonizing and distorting them beyond all recognition. 

The conspiracy entrepreneurs and professional partisans who profit in this environment need to keep their audiences agitated, convinced that they have access to special knowledge. 

They become addicted to division, divorced from the actual responsibilities of governing and ironically alienated from the Founding Fathers they claim to admire.  George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had their differences, of course, but they all warned against the dangers of falling into factions.

"One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts," wrote Washington in his farewell address.  "You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection."

It is worth taking the advice of the original founding father to heart.  There is an alternative to the Politics of the Empty Chair -- and that is a serious, civic debate, backed by facts and contemptuous of fear-fueled misrepresentations, especially from our own side of the aisle. 

After all, America is too great a nation -- and presidential elections too important an occasion -- to have our country looking confused and past its prime, engaged in overheated debates with fictitious figures, while the whole world watches.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT