The OTHER presidential debate: Jon Stewart vs Bill O'Reilly

The "Rumble In The Air-Conditioned Auditorium" shows how staid the real thing is, says Nicky Woolf. Also, that Jon Stewart should be helping Obama with debate-prep.

At five minutes to eight last night, Eastern time, the internet imploded. Or at least, that corner of the internet that was attempting to access the live-stream for the promised “Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium” between Fox News' patriarch Bill O'Reilly and the Daily Show's Jon Stewart. Under the pressure of “hundreds of thousands” of last-minute users trying to access the live feed (which cost $4.95, with some proceeds for charity), Nox Solutions, which was operating the stream, came under heavy fire from dissatisfied social media users. “Screw you NOX SOLUTIONS”, said one on the event's Facebook page. “This is ridiculous this is PATHETIC – off to Reddit to fix, mock and hopefully find a solution,” said another.

The Wall Street Journal's live-blog of the event was caught in the blackout. The entry for 8:24 reads: “I apologize for this live blog not being able to cover this event so far. We have already contacted the organizers to ask what's going on with their site, which appears to have crashed for lots of other users. Nobody has returned our message yet.”

I managed to find a feed eventually, through a slightly shady web-TV outfit based, as far as I could tell, out of the Ukraine, with a shaky video feed but a solid audio, which was better than a lot of people were doing. The showdown, when I finally got in to it, was a hell of a lot more fun than last Wednesday's presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Bill O'Reilly is probably the most influential media figure on the right. His Fox News show has been top of the ratings for more than ten years now, while more bombastic anchors like Glenn Beck have come and gone. Meanwhile Stewart, despite vehemently denying his show's political influence – “I'm just a comedian,” he likes to say in interviews, slightly disingenuously – is nonetheless without a doubt the most influential media figure on the left, with viewing figures similar to that of O'Reilly, and the Daily Show acts as a stalwart check on the excesses of Fox News. Both command audiences of between two and three million.

Stewart and O'Reilly have already crossed swords on the other's shows several times, and these are always enjoyable conflicts. While there were a lot of lines played just for laughs – Stewart said the Fox News building had the Eye of Sauron on its roof, and raised himself up and down at various intervals on a platform lift behind his podium as part of a running joke about their height difference (Stewart is 5'7”, O'Reilly 6'4”, leading the former to call the latter a “yeti”). O'Reilly came with bizarre placards – one with the words “Iran: not frightened” as well as a cartoon picture of a bomb.

But despite this levity, much of the evening had a serious tone. The biggest applause of the evening came from a line of Stewart's. “Why is it that if you take advantage of a tax break, you’re a smart businessman, but if you take advantage of something you need to not go hungry, you’re a moocher?” he demanded. When O'Reilly said that government was good at running things like the military only because it had a “tradition” of doing so, Stewart, leaning back and unsmiling, called it “the silliest thing you've said all evening.”

Stewart scored a crushing blow when the moderator asked who each of them would save, rather surreally, if “America was burning.” “Oprah,” answered O'Reilly. “She's worth a hundred million.” Stewart raised an eyebrow, and said cuttingly: “well, I'd save my family. But listen, Oprah's a great answer too.”

The Daily Show presenter was especially good at courting the online as well as the present audience. “Somebody better be live-tweeting this,” he said at one point. “I don't care if Gerry and the Pacemakers attacked the embassy,” said O'Reilly a bit later, and in answer Stewart waved expansively at the cameras. “This is on the internet, Bill,” he said. “I don't think that's really the reference you want to be making.” “Alright then,” answered O'Reilly dryly but uncertainly. “I don't care if... um, Little Wayne attacked the embassy.”

The most interesting thing really, of course, was what last night said about the debates it emulated: it highlighted the insipid, starchy care with which a Presidential candidate must conduct himself. Last night sparkled with all the ridiculousness and fire that was lacking last Wednesday, because the media pressure on a candidate not to make anything which can be interpreted as a gaffe. Romney's perceived win on Wednesday was because he looked most like Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly did last night: like he was enjoying himself. Facts (arguably) be damned.

Obama looked professorial and staid by comparison, and in an age where the best lines are far more important than the best policies this was fatal. It is Jon Stewart who the President should be running debate-prep with, not John Kerry.

Yeah, this happened. Photo: Getty

Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly at their presidential debate. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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