Where is Hillary Clinton?
More than any question that was actually posed to the Democratic candidates, that's what viewers were wondering mid-debate Saturday when ABC returned from a commercial break with only two of the three participants onstage. Missing was the former secretary of state, who strolled in moments after the action resumed, repositioned her microphone and said a brief, "Sorry."
This was highly unusual. As some pointed out, debate agreements often include a clause that prohibits broadcasters from showing empty podiums should candidates be late in returning to the stage, though there was reportedly no such a provision for this debate, per the Los Angeles Times.
Agreement not to show empty podium is pretty standard in campaign negotiations. I’m kind of stunned right now
— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) December 20, 2015
GOP candidates asked that networks not "show an empty podium after a break (describe how far away the bathrooms are).” It’s a good point.
— Yoni Appelbaum (@YAppelbaum) December 20, 2015
Clinton's momentary absenteeism also sparked a round of Clint Eastwood jokes. Remember that strange speech/soliloquy during the 2012 Republican National Convention, in which Eastwood carried on an imaginary conversation with President Obama, represented by an empty chair?
— Bruce Wolf (@BruceWolfChi) December 20, 2015
Perhaps we'll find out after the debate what caused Clinton's delay. But expect ABC to have some explaining to do, too. The network surely could have figured out a way to stall and not draw attention to Clinton's tardiness. It's likely Clinton HQ isn't terribly happy with what just happened.
This shouldn't be a huge deal, but the imagery of a vacant lectern makes an easy target for opponents, which is why candidates often demand that networks not show one. Just a couple weeks ago, critics of President Obama had some fun with the empty desk that appeared behind him in the Oval Office during a primetime address.
Why is POTUS in front of the desk at a podium? Notice the desk is empty. Like his plan to battle ISIS pic.twitter.com/NqyHGdS2ht
— Jonathan Elrod (@jonelrod9) December 7, 2015
Obama's presidency in one image: hiding behind a podium reading a teleprompter. In the president's position: AN EMPTY CHAIR. An empty chair.
— Jonathan Nolan (@FlyingTigerComx) December 7, 2015
— Susan Whitson Bagley (@sbbagley) December 7, 2015
Expect Clinton haters to make similar cracks after Saturday's debate. The empty podium might even show up in Republican candidates' stump speeches or commercials. Donald Trump loves to mock Clinton for her supposed lack of "stamina"; is it much of a stretch to think he'll go the Flomax route on this one?
The potential -- nay, the likelihood -- of facilitating attacks is why ABC should have gone out of its way to fill time and cover for Clinton. She should have known the length of the commercial break, and she should have been back on time. That's on her. And it's understandable that ABC would want to keep things moving and enforce the agreed-upon time parameters.
But it's just not worth the griping that is sure to follow. Clinton and her supporters will almost certainly blame ABC for whatever grief she gets, which unnecessarily puts the network in a defensive position after running an otherwise pretty smooth debate.
We saw ABC linger on George Stephanopoulos and the analysis team coming out of other breaks. It could have done the same when Clinton was a no-show.