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 reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.