We have a recent popular example of an empty chair debate. And many will forever argue who won it - actor/director Clint Eastwood, or the empty chair beside him meant to represent President Barack Obama during the August 2012 Republican National Convention.
The faulty execution of the trick overshadowed Eastwood's attempted message.
Empty chair debates are not new. The Smithsonian's online publication Smithsonian.com catalogued some modern-era empty chair debate chronology in its Aug. 21, 2012, article, "The Long History of Americans Debating Empty Chairs."
According to the article, in races where the empty chair tactic was used, the results were not favorable for those attempting the routine.
In 1924, Progressive vice-presidential nominee Burton Wheeler debated an empty chair standing in for then-President Calvin Coolidge. Wheeler claimed the stunt was wildly successful in his autobiography "Yankee from the West," though Wheeler didn't win the election.
William Safire's Political Dictionary reports that John Foster Dulles traveled with a prop chair on the campaign trail to stand in for former New York Governor Herbert Lehman in his 1949 run for the U.S. Senate. Dulles lost that Senate race, but would later serve as Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In Russia, Boris Yeltsin's absence from a six-way debate in 1991 left challengers fuming over their inability to attack standing policy head on.
The empty chair issue reared its head this election season in Harvard. The Harvard League of Women Voters co-sponsored a debate April 11 and invited candidates seeking town-wide elected office. But due to an apparent conflict, Conservation Commission member Jim Breslauer said he could not attend. As a result, the Harvard League of Women Voters 'uninvited' the other candidate -- now-sitting selectman Bill Johnson.
Johnson is ticked at the lost opportunity to participate in the only election season debate, due to be cablecast into voter households . We agree with Johnson, despite the national League of Women Voters' stance on the issue. The nonprofit League seems to tuck tail, fearful of suits by those who may wish to challenge the lost opportunity to attend debates which proceed in their absence.
"Although legal challenges are infrequent, debates are high-stakes campaign activities, and candidates who believe they have been hurt politically by a debate may challenge debate sponsors under these laws," reads the Feb. 15, 2012, advisory to local branches on the LOWV website.
The catch-all caveat is regurgitated, too. "The League of Women Voters shall not support or oppose any political party or any candidate," continues the League advisory.
We argue that's a policy that cuts both ways.
The League submits that FCC regulations suggest against empty chair debates, but provides conflicting evidence in support of that stance. A broadcast debate must comply with the following: "The decision to cover the debate must be based on a good faith judgment of its newsworthiness (and not on a desire to promote or disadvantage a particular candidate,)" says the League in its 'nonlegal' interpretation of FCC regulations. The League also states a "debate must include at least two candidates."
But that advisory begins with a warning that candidates must be given the same OPPORTUNITY to attend a radio-, television- or cable-cast debate. Here, both candidates were invited.
The Harvard League of Women Voters is comfortable taking stances on other policies - which perhaps one candidate or another would favor or disdain. At http://www.lwvharvard.org, the local chapter lays out its shared philosophy favoring open space and recreational uses of land, but takes a stance pledging allegiance to stances of the Conservation Commission on zoning issues "to avoid haphazard development."
Towards that end, the Harvard League of Women Voters supports "limitation on certain physical aspects of commercial usage, i.e., architectural constraints on buildings and constraints on commercial parking lots to provide for safety and appearance compatible with a rural atmosphere."
That League stance doesn't seem to entirely comport with Johnson's message for planning for an improved and expanded commercial district. Johnson, as a founder of the Economic Development Committee, helped lead study into a retooled Ayer Road commercial district which could change the status quo.
We ask why the League feels there's no value in hearing from this willing voice in a race for an important seat. To twist the League's own directive on its ear, disinviting Johnson puts forward an appearance that the League does not want to give his platform airtime.
We submit that it is easy to stifle debate by simply saying one candidate cannot make it so neither will speak.
The invitations went out. Those willing and able to attend, should have been allowed to do so.