Compared to his two most recent predecessors, Barack Obama is a difficult man to mock. But on Thursday night at the Republican National Convention, Clint Eastwood tried to do what Saturday Night Live has found to be incredibly difficult: Mine laughs at Obama's expense. And Eastwood's ridiculing tone undercut Mitt Romney's effort to appear more sad than angry at Obama's "failure."
The joke, it turned out, was on Eastwood: He looked foolish, and his trademark whisper sounded feeble. Eastwood's ability to keep working at a high level in his 80s has been celebrated. Now his only hope is that people will give him a pass because of his age.
But Eastwood's routine didn't fail solely because of Eastwood: It's because of Obama. The idea that this particular president is an empty chair — in Eastwood's strained metaphor — didn't feel right; it didn't connect with anything people know about Obama. Whatever his problems, and there have been many, he's hardly been an empty chair.
Behind the scenes, Republicans worry far less about Obama's record than about Obama as an historic figure, the nation's first black president and a symbol of American progress. That's why Romney, in his acceptance speech, tried so hard to take any edge off his criticisms of the president; Romney wanted to cut Obama down to size, but gently, by suggesting that he hasn't really justified the faith that the American people placed in him.
Eastwood's mistake was to invite the real Obama back into the room, in the form of that empty chair. Eastwood asked the audience watching on TV to imagine Obama's responses to a bunch of questions. And, surely, the answers the audience envisioned weren't nearly as inane as Eastwood's questions. Obama towered over Eastwood. Did he also tower over Romney?