Last Wednesday, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer appeared on The Daily Show, hosted by Jon Stewart. Krauthammer recently released his book Things That Matter, which he is publicizing through a tour of media appearances.
It was a brave choice to appear on a show hosted by Jon Stewart, a man admittedly left of center and known for ridiculing politicians and pundits — especially those on the conservative side of the spectrum. But what ensued was not jabs, barbs or ridicule. Jon Stewart’s interview with Charles Krauthammer turned into one of the most noteworthy debates over the fundamentals of liberalism and conservatism that has happened in years.
For readers who do not have common knowledge of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart is not just a comedian. Stewart created his own career by revolutionizing the comedic entertainment industry and the news industry. He is one of the funniest men on television, but he is also one of the smartest — even when considering network news and public broadcasting. Anyone who follows The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News Channel gained first-hand knowledge of Stewart’s intelligence after this discussion with Bill O’Reilly in 2011. Even though there are 14 other writers on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart deserves the lion’s share of the credit for creating a smart, consistently funny and relevant show.
Krauthammer and Stewart began the interview with a discussion of Krauthammer’s ideologiclal shift from liberal to conservative. Related to that was a discussion of modern conservative ideology, which Stewart defined as a belief that government cannot help people and that, as a result, any “chaos” created by politicians in government only serves to prove the conservative point, which gives conservatives an incentive to throw wrenches in the works of government. Krauthammer dismissed the caricature that paints Senator Ted Cruz as the voice of conservatism. He argued that a better articulator of conservatism is Paul Ryan, who argues that the modern entitlement state (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) is fast becoming insolvent due to changes in demographics and modern medicine, and must be reformed before it ruins the entire system. Stewart acknowledged approvingly Krauthammer’s variation of conservatism, which in Krauthammer’s words does not “allow the elderly to enter into destitution” by providing a social safety net, and mused that if conservatives — including Paul Ryan, in his view — could explain conservatism as cordially as Krauthammer, then America would be having a much different debate than it is right now.
The beauty of Mr. Krauthammer and Mr. Stewart’s discussion lies in both sides’ admission that the other actually has positive goals — an admission which today’s parties do not afford one another.
The discussion then turned to the Republican strategy and rhetoric during the government shutdown. Stewart argued that conservatives proved hypocritical by arguing that Obamacare must be stopped to prevent damage to the economy, but then shutting down the government, which itself did damage to the economy. Krauthammer agreed with Stewart that some Republicans who agreed with the government shutdown strategy are more radical — and louder in the media —, but that the majority of conservatives disagree with the tactic. Krauthammer made the point that not all conservatives can be tied to Cruz, just as all liberals cannot be tied to Representative Allen Grayson [D-FL].
Krauthammer then shifted discussion to the Tea Party. He argued that at the movement’s heart is constitutionalism that arose organically in reaction to government abuse by President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats, but that the movement has lost respect for separation of powers and the checks that prevents governance by a minority. Stewart assessment of the Tea Party’s genesis was harsher: he argued that the creation of the movement had nothing to do with Obama, but was instead an outpouring of conservative anger that Republicans used in the past to get elected but could no longer control.
The discussion then shifted away from tactics and philosophy to policy, particularly possible remedies for entitlement programs and the national debt.
Regarding the debt, Stewart expressed himself unhappy with Republicans’ refusal to consider additional revenue measures to alleviate some of the fiscal pressure of government entitlement spending. He postited that, while there is waste and incompetence in government that should be fixed, refusal to discuss additional revenues while marginal tax rates are at their lowest rates in half a century is unfair. Krauthammer responded that, despite marginal rate cuts, tax receipts as a percent of GDP (the figure that matters) is still at normal for the period after World War II, while spending is far above average for that period.
Regarding health care, Krauthammer argued that providing for the poor and caring about their medical care is the sign of a humane society, but that Obama and congressional Democrats were not content to stop there. Instead, they re-regulated and transformed one sixth of the economy, leading hundreds of thousands (millions, actually) of people to be cut from affordable individual insurance plans for vastly more expensive new plans because of Obamacare regulations. Stewart pointed out that while the law’s consequences have made hindsight clearer, the right has still not offered an alternative to replace Obamacare. Krauthammer offered Paul Ryan’s proposed reforms, such as voucher-like reform to Medicare, as possible conservative solutions to the health care thicket.
Here, Stewart and Krauthammer’s argument began to simmer down, and ultimately the interview ended in amiable disagreement about what power the government should have in the economy.
Ultimately, the interview provided the millions of young people who watch The Daily Show for comedy with solid perspectives — on health care, the role of government, political philosophy and so much more — from both sides of the aisle. Stewart and Krauthammer represent some of the brightest minds on the left and the right, and their discussion should serve as a model for ideological debates to come. Unfortunately, in a climate of political polarization we should not expect political debates to yield anything like the mutual respect these two men demonstrated for each other.
—Connor Kitchings is a freshman studying political science and economics