Stephen Colbert – 2016 player?

Stephen Colbert's 'Late Show' debut signals that he aims to be a voice in the 2016 campaign – and that serious questions about politics will be in the mix, along with the laughs. 

Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS/AP
Stephen Colbert (r.) talks with Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush during the premiere episode of 'The Late Show,' on Tuesday in New York. Mr. Bush and actor George Clooney were the guests for Colbert's debut.

Yes, he’s had nine months to prepare. But Stephen Colbert did a pretty good job with his political stuff in his initial “Late Show” episode Tuesday night. It’s clear that he envisions his new gig as something semi-serious – comedy with flecks of Sunday morning news show mixed in.

And that means he could be a strong journalistic player as the presidential campaign progresses.

“Something tells us Colbert’s interviews will be fodder in the 2016 campaign,” noted Amber Philips of The Washington Post’s Fix political blog this morning.

Donald Trump provided much of the comedy. Colbert did an extended bit which began with Mr. Trump’s refusal to eat Oreos, since they’re made in Mexico now, and continued as Colbert tempted himself with Oreos, which became a sort of metaphor for the media's obsession with replaying Trump video clips, since it’s so tempting but not good for you. It ended with Colbert stuffed and covered with crumbs.

Extra points to Colbert for use of baked goods as media symbolism. We await a flood of Twitter-borne hot takes on this performance.

The serious came with Colbert’s chat with Jeb Bush, particularly the long-form version posted on YouTube. The former Florida governor was clearly a bit nervous about the whole thing, which was understandable given that he had no idea what to expect from a brand-new show. Appearing as Colbert’s political kickoff was a risk for Bush. But given his current standing in the race, he needs to take risks.

What did we learn? That Bush’s strategy is still to run as if he were a general election candidate, for one thing. Colbert asked a strong, general question about the nature of politics itself, whether opponents must always be demonized. Tellingly, Bush talked about President Obama in his answer, not his primary opponents. And he said something GOP primary voters might not like.

“I don’t think Barack Obama has bad motives,” said Bush. “I just think he’s wrong on a lot of issues.”

On a particular issue – gun control – Colbert pressed Bush in a manner more journalists should duplicate. The first question came from a viewer raffle, and it asked, in general, what new measures Bush might take to control US firearms. Bush brought up possible mental health checks for gun purchasers. And Colbert took it up a notch – what would Bush do if the NRA opposed such checks?

Bush side-stepped, saying gun control should be a state-by-state issue. Colbert kept at it, saying that gun ownership is protected by a national document – the Constitution – so perhaps it needs to be controlled on a similarly national level.

Bush said states rights are in the Constitution too, in the 10th Amendment. Is that a circular argument? Maybe – but in any case viewers got a decent sense of Bush’s views.

Then, for fun, Colbert did a little “debate prep” with Bush, and had Bush read answers that had been “Trumpified."

“I promise to put Meatloaf on the $10 bill,” said Bush.

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