Saturday, September 01, 2012

What's Mitt Romney's Plan for When He Runs Out of Empty Chairs

All this talk of empty chairs has brought to mind a change in the law that took place in Michigan some years back. Prior to the change, in a case in which more than one person might be responsible for an injury, a plaintiff could sue the person he believed to be primarily or solely liable without suing everybody under the sun. After the change, the justifications for which are best reserved for another day, the defendant no longer had to bring in the additional defendant - he could instead use the "empty chair defense", arguing that the person the plaintiff did not sue was the person who caused the injury.

Clint Eastwood provided a pretty dramatic example of how the empty chair defense can work. When nobody is sitting in the chair, you can attribute actions to the absent person that weren't his, you can argue that he's responsible for things that were outside of his control, you can put words into his mouth.... In court, the person who put you on trial can object, or attempt to argue a different theory - although in most cases, upon receiving notice that the "empty chair" defense is coming into play, they'll add the third party to the lawsuit. At a political convention, there's nobody to object.

But what Mitt Romney's doing isn't much different from what Clint Eastwood did. Romney tried running a campaign against the actual person named Barack Obama, the President, and he realized that he was losing. So he has changed his approach and is running against a fictional person, coincidentally named Barack Obama, who happens to have said and done a lot of questionable things, and may not even have been born in the United States (a joke...). As with the convention, though, Mitt Romney's attacks on his false Obama amounts to little more than hectoring an empty chair. The real Barack Obama is not invited to the party.

Romney appears to want to pull back a bit from his mendacity and race-baiting, and at the convention that job fell principally to others. But it would certainly be fair game to ask him about some of his allegations at a debate, when he's face-to-face with the actual President, and even if no direct question is asked we can expect the President to put Romney in the hot seat. And it's quite certain that if Romney huffs his usual falsehoods in the direction of the President, he's going to get a strong response. Romney seems intent on telegraphing every punch.

I think it was a big mistake for Romney's campaign to decide that he should get his hands dirty. Even if the thought was that Romney no longer had plausible deniability that his campaign was being intentionally dishonest - you can't, for example, premise your party convention on a lie without getting stuck with some responsibility - and even if Romney's advisers believed that certain portions of the base would be reassured, there is a difference between having the word's come out of the mouth of a proxy like John Sununu and speaking the words yourself. A proxy goes too far? They can apologize, have their role reduced, even be fired. You go to far? Those words are much more likely to come back at you.

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