Is Jon Stewart good for the Republicans?
Anyone who doesn't live in a house with rotary phones and no cable knows that the host of "The Daily Show" is organizing a Rally to Restore Sanity
in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 30. (The day before Halloween -- a coincidence? I think not.) Stewart's battle cry is simple: "We're looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn't be the only ones that get heard." Though he doesn't call it such, this demonstration is a response to angry Tea Party gatherings of the past year or so and Glenn Beck's whatever-it-was in Washington on Aug. 28. And as part of the joke -- I mean, strategic plan -- Stephen Colbert will be holding a "Keep Fear Alive" counter-march on the same day.
Without one foot yet hitting the National Mall, Stewart's plan is a whopping success. As of Sunday night, over 186,000 people had signed up to attend on the rally's Facebook site
. Another 100,000 said "maybe." (Perhaps they're waiting to see who the guests are going to be.) The Facebook page is full of notes from enthusiastic Stewartites readying for their trip to D.C. Washington hotels report bookings for that weekend are way up. And Oprah has endorsed the rally, tweeting to her followers, "I think Jon Stewart's on to something. . . . Would you consider going?" (To which the rally's Twitter feed responded, "@Oprah we are trying to remain reasonable, rational and clam. But it is very tough when you mention our rally.") And Stewart, who had arranged to do a week of shows from D.C. at the end of October before announcing the rally, is guaranteed a ratings whopper before the event kicks off.
Stewart is a comic genius and one of the most sharp-eyed political satirists and
news media critics in decades. (Ditto, ditto, and ditto for Colbert) If Stewart can draw 200,000-plus people to D.C. (with or without Colbert), this will be a significant cultural moment. ("Think of our event as Woodstock, but with the nudity and drugs replaced by respectful disagreement," the march's call says.) It will further twist, blur, or emulsify the lines that supposedly distinguish real media from faux media, and real politics from for-show politics. ("America Is a Joke," was the title of a recent New York magazine profile
of Stewart.) But though Stewart's rally could end up a valuable moment by presenting a potent counter to Beckism, let me suggest another concurrent possibility: It could be useful for Republicans.
Stewartpalooza is happening the weekend before the critical congressional elections. It will suck up plenty of media attention -- and resources. Think of all the people who will be coming -- and the time and money it will take them to plan the trip and to travel to and from the nation's capital. These folks are likely to be more sympathetic to Democrats than Republicans, despite Stewart's skewer-'em-all approach. So if the pro-sanity crowd is packing bags and heading to Washington on the last weekend prior to the elections, these people won't be knocking on doors or making phone calls to get out the vote for Democratic candidates.
Certainly, if many of moderate-as-hell demonstrators hail from congressional districts where the Democratic candidates are likely to win (say, anywhere in Manhattan), there's no real harm done. But if Stewart draws bodies from toss-up districts -- and provides an outlet for citizens who might otherwise be persuaded to do grassroots political work at home -- Republican strategists will be delighted. Moreover, one can expect President Obama to be barnstorming that last weekend and promoting a forceful case against the Republicans. Stewartstock will compete for precious media time with the president. And what will the rally's overall message be? Something like "Enough already"? As much as that might resonate with many Americans, such a call might not do much to motivate voters to hit the polls the following Tuesday. Stewart obviously is a progressive-minded fellow, but how far can he go in pushing a message -- after all, this is comedy, right? -- that helps the Democrats at the last minute?
When Colbert testified before Congress recently, he was masterful -- as a postmodern (or post-O'Reilly) reality-curving humorist. His appearance was a rather sophisticated send-up of American politics. At the same time, he attempted to register a sincere point about the plight of immigrant workers. Ultimately, Colbert the comic ended up competing with Colbert the advocate. Yes, he did bring attention to a subcommittee hearing that was otherwise destined for no notice. But that attention focused on whether Colbert as "Colbert" had brought the right sort of attention to the hearing.
The dynamics of the Stewart/Colbert rallies could be similar. With this event, Stewart is using satire to advance a serious case, but he has to play it for laughs. Come the end of October, the Democrats will be doing everything they can to hold on to the House and beat back an anti-incumbent surge beneficial to the Republicans. Anything that distracts or gets in the way could hamper that effort. And the Republicans end up laughing the most.
But no matter what happens, everyone attending the Rally to Restore Sanity is invited to my house afterward for coffee and cake.
By the way, David Corn has never been a guest on "The Daily Show" . . . and he doubts this column will earn him a booking. But you can follow his postings and media appearances via Twitter.