Jon Stewart debates Bill O'Reilly: Who won?

Comedian Jon Stewart and TV host Bill O’Reilly delivered a pretty good clash of ideologies, spiced up with humor and leavened by the fact that the two men appear to be friends.

Peter Kramer/AP/File
Comedy Central's Jon Stewart, (l.), and Bill O'Reilly tape an interview in New York in September. Stewart and O'Reilly, a celebrity odd couple with a history of public political feuds, tangle in a sold-out debate in Washington.

Daily Show” comedian Jon Stewart debated Fox News host Bill O’Reilly on a national webcast Saturday night. Who won their “Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium”?

The audience, for one. (Particularly the members of the live audience in George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, since they didn’t have to suffer from slow or frozen Internet connections due to servers overloaded by viewer demand.) Messrs. Stewart and O’Reilly delivered a pretty good clash of ideologies, in which each addressed the other’s points, spiced up with humor and leavened by the fact that the two men appear to be friends.

That’s more than you could say about last week’s presidential debate.

As for Saturday night, take the issue of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments about the percentage of Americans who consider themselves victims entitled to government support. O’Reilly defended Mr. Romney’s general point. The Fox host acknowledged that the Americans who belong to what he called the “entitlement society” add up to far less than 47 percent of the nation – but, he said, it’s a growing problem that’s driving big government and much of the deficit.

“About 20 percent of us are slackers, and it’s a growing industry,” O’Reilly said.

Stewart blew his top, or pretended to. He noted that the United States was founded by immigrants who came to a country already settled by natives and decided they wanted it for themselves.

“We are an entitlement nation,” Stewart said. “Have you ever seen 'Oprah’s Favorite Things' episode? We are a people that wants free things.”

The issue for 2012, Stewart said, was whether President Obama has fundamentally changed citizens’ relationship to the government in this regard. O’Reilly responded that Mr. Obama had, given the increase in food stamps and other social spending, including a doubling of government disability payments.

“The mind-set is, if I can gin the system, I’ll do it because it’s easy,” O’Reilly said.

Stewart said Obama hadn’t changed that relationship. The bad economy drove up food-stamp spending, he said. Then he pointed out that O’Reilly’s own father claimed disability, albeit from a private firm.

“If you take advantage of a tax break, you’re a smart businessman. If you take advantage of something you need to not be hungry, you’re a moocher,” Stewart said.

On the issue of the deficit, Stewart argued that Republicans are exaggerating the short-term threat to the US economy, without proposing any real solutions.

“We are merely weeks from being a failed state, or even worse, Greece,” said Stewart, hyperbolizing the GOP view of the situation. “To solve it, kill Big Bird.”

Of course, ending federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as Romney proposed during last week’s debate, saves a pittance. That’s what Stewart pointed out. But O’Reilly got him in response, asserting that Obama’s proposal to increase taxes on wealthy individuals by itself doesn’t do much to close the deficit, either.

“It doesn’t matter what [President] Bush did. The job of the president now is to get the deficit under control, and you got to cut stuff,” O’Reilly said.

As for the funny bits, O’Reilly mostly served as the amused straight man to the professional comedian. Thus the 6-foot, 4-inch Fox News personality watched as the comedian, short enough to be called “Hobbit-like” by moderator E.D. Hill, rose on a motorized platform to surpass his opponent’s height.

“I can see how Obama did badly in the debate. The air is really rough up here,” Stewart said at one point.

Prodded by the moderator as to whether US politics should feature more cross-partisan dialogue, Stewart got up and sat in O’Reilly’s lap.

“What would you like for Christmas, little boy?” O’Reilly responded, before telling Stewart to vamoose.

(See, that’s extra-humorous because Stewart is Jewish, and they’d already argued as to whether there’s a war on Christmas in America.)

As to which participant may have bested the other, we’ll take the safe route and say they both won, particularly because both were getting paid, which is really the point, right?

And in that regard, O’Reilly may have won a little more. He’s got a new book out, “Killing Kennedy,” a narrative of the events surrounding JFK’s assassination. So the debate has given him a burst of publicity at a time that’s good for his pocketbook.

As O’Reilly said during the debate, “You gotta let the free market run away a little bit. You gotta unleash the machine.”

“Right,” riposted Stewart. “Because what could go wrong?”

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