Why Jon Stewart Shouldn’t Be Taken at Face Value

As someone who was a fan of comedian Jon Stewart way back in the early 90s, several years before he became a household name, I’ve never denied his talent.

As someone who’s watched him take principled, passionate, and even hands-on positions on a number of important issues, I’ve never denied his authenticity.

But as someone who’s also watched him routinely argue in bad-faith, and assign the worst possible motivations to those he views as political opponents, I’ve also learned never to take him at face value.

Last weekend was a prime example.

Stewart appeared in front of seemingly every news camera he could find, angrily charging that Senate Republicans had, out of an inexplicably callous or even evil disregard for U.S. veterans suffering from the effects of toxic burn pits, pulled a dramatic 180 by blocking a bill aimed at providing them with additional health-care services.

Stewart has become the face of the burn-pit issue, advocating for the expansion of the types of benefits included in the bill. And as far as he was concerned (and voiced at every opportunity), the GOP had betrayed our veterans.

“You don’t support the troops,” Stewart said of Republicans who’d held up debate on the bill. “…America’s heroes, who fought in our wars, outside sweating their asses off with oxygen. Battling all kinds of ailments. While these motherfuckers sit in the air conditioning, walled off from any of it. They don’t have to hear it, they don’t have to see it, they don’t have to understand that these are human beings.”

Stewart took particular aim at Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), calling him a “fucking coward” and accusing him of refusing to meet with veterans before spearheading the effort to block cloture on the bill.

Democrats in Congress echoed Stewart’s sentiments, and a sympathetic media largely bolstered the comedian’s claims with little push-back.

The reality of what happened, however, is quite a bit more nuanced. Commentary’s Noah Rothman explained it in a piece on Monday:

The effort to invoke cloture on the Honoring Our PACT Act went down to defeat last week after it had already passed the U.S. Senate in June with significant Republican support. Why? The Senate had to take a second vote on the measure after the Senate introduced phased-implementation rules and upped the number of staff to process new claims. But that required new revenue, and since all such bills must originate in the House, the process had to begin anew. In the interim, however, the Washington Post reported that Sen. Pat Toomey “worked behind the scenes to inform his colleagues about a major flaw in the bill.”

The Pennsylvania senator’s long-held objection to this legislation rests on the fact that about $400 billion in spending over the next ten years has been deemed “non-discretionary,” meaning that it doesn’t need to be deliberately appropriated by Congress and will be spent, no matter what. But that spending isn’t dedicated to veterans’ affairs; it isn’t dedicated to anything, in fact. It is a blank check that Toomey believes will be made out to Democratic priorities or favored constituencies without a public debate over the value of that spending.

In other words, Toomey’s objection, as voiced to his Republican colleagues and denied by Stewart, was to money unrelated to veterans’ care. The senator proposed an amendment to the bill removing the non-discretionary provision while preserving and mandating the funding dedicated to helping our veterans. His amendment, however, was tabled by leaders in the Democratic-led Senate. The situation could have easily been fixed (and still can), but Democrats moved straight to the vote, and the bill went down.

Stewart grossly misrepresented the Republicans’ position, defaulting — as he often does — to vilification. Toomey and company were soulless heathens, according to Stewart. No other explanation was possible.

“Advocates for this worthy cause don’t even address the simplest explanation for Senate Republicans’ reversal…” wrote Rothman in his piece, “that Toomey and his staff read the legislation more carefully than his GOP colleagues.”

Toomey defended his stance on Jack Tapper’s show over the weekend, calling the framing by Stewart and the Democrats “the oldest trick in Washington.”

“People take a sympathetic group of Americans — and it could be children with an illness, it could be victims of crime, it could be veterans who’ve been exposed to toxic chemicals — craft a bill to address their problems, and then sneak in something completely unrelated that they know could never pass on its own, and dare Republicans to do anything about it,” said the senator.

Toomey’s right, but what he has working against him is the unfortunate reality that most Americans, like Stewart, don’t really care about hidden, unrelated taxpayer spending (even in very large amounts) tacked onto legislation they otherwise want to see passed. Passion and expediency are the things that matter. Fiscal conservatism, on the other hand, is mostly dead in this country (even as we race toward $31 trillion in national debt with inflation through the roof).

But people should care about the specifics, because those doing the greatest disservice to important legislative initiatives aren’t people like Toomey, who reasonably want to draw a direct line to the funding. It’s done by those who condition such initiatives on, and potentially hold them hostage with, totally unrelated, self-serving, taxpayer-funded ambitions.

Perhaps Stewart could spare a little sanctimony for those folks.

Again, there’s an easy fix to all of this, and it will likely come about sooner rather than later, but not before we’ll assuredly hear more ugly, unfair aspersions cast by Stewart and others.

I certainly admire, and am even grateful for, the work Stewart has done on veteran causes. I think he’s sincere and well-intentioned on these issues. But he’s also a rhetorical bomb-thrower by nature — a guy so infected by partisan politics that he can’t be trusted for good-faith, objective assessments of anything within our political spectrum.

That’s why, for all of his qualities, he should never be taken at face value.



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