Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Sebelius vs. Stewart: A Clash of Rhetorics

Aaron Belz


By Aaron Belz

October 11, 2013

On Monday night’s Daily Show, Jon Stewart presented Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius with what he called “a challenge”:  “I’m going to try to download every movie ever made, and you’re going to try to sign up for Obamacare, and we’ll see which happens first.” Sebelius’s pained look and instinct to reply in kind disappeared into a genial “okay.”

This Daily Show episode highlights the contrast between political and comic rhetoric—and the separate but complementary role of each. Sebelius genuinely tries to explain how Obamacare is intended to work. Stewart, more focused on its reality, alternates between earnest questioning and comic relief. Of Obamacare’s faltering start he asks, “Is this working? Is this not working?” “Well the great news is, we have a terrific” blah blah blah, Sebelius replies, in full politics mode. While Sebelius talks, Stewart narrows his gaze, straightens his papers by tapping them on the desk, and finally interrupts her: “How many have signed up thus far?” “Fully enrolled? I can’t tell you.” “Yeah,” he says, “sure. 

This is the way the comic and political modes intersect. Stewart’s smugness and sharp interrogation yield pillowy answers—spin, rather—from Sebelius, and who can blame either of them? They’re doing their jobs. “Why, Hal, ‘tis my vocation, Hal,” says Falstaff in Henry IV, speaking of purse-snatching; “‘tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation.” That repartee, by the way, is another site of the interaction of comic and political rhetorics, though different due to Prince Henry’s expert deployment of wit, which subtly upends his opponent. In the case of Sebelius vs. Stewart, the former is armed only with spin. That is to say, she’s essentially unarmed.

When Sebelius begins to “sell” Obamacare by explaining how many hundreds of thousands of people have “created accounts” (not “enrolled,” she clarifies, “Jon, this is like a Kayak site where you might check out what plane you want to get on”), Stewart looks incredulous and again interrupts. He challenges her on the matter of businesses being given a yearlong pass while “individuals were not given that option. Why is that?” Sebelius flat out doesn’t answer the question. She turns the discussion toward tax credits and other benefits individuals will realize, then begins to cite statistics: “Six out of ten people will get a policy for under a hundred bucks a month. That has never happened before.” Stewart draws the discussion back to his question—or tries to.

Several minutes later, Stewart again asks why individuals are required to sign up for Obamacare while “big business” is not. They aren’t required to sign up, Sebelius explains; “They pay a fine. They pay a fine at the end of the year, but they can say, ‘I don’t want to do it.’” At minute six Stewart transitions to a commercial break by saying “Can we come back and ask more questions?” “Sure!” Sebelius cheerily replies. “Can I ask the same one?” Stewart says, drawing big laughs from the studio audience. “If you want to!” she says with a smile. But his droning attack is wearing her out.

Stewart begins the second half of the interview by pointing out that Obamacare’s “level of incompetence is larger than what it should be” and moves into specific criticisms. Sebelius remarkably continues to draw attention away from his questions and toward vagaries of what “economists say” and how little enrollees (even those who don’t want to be enrolled) will pay. She’s trained toward talking points; he just wants answers.

What’s most intriguing is Stewart’s short proclamation of his own vision; he believes healthcare to be incompatible with the open market and proposes a leveling of all US citizens to the same plane with one single per-citizen fee, administered by the government. Do away with the “garbledy-gook” of Obamacare. This speech draws huge cheers from the crowd, to which Stewart stands and begins to sing Lee Greenwood. Sebelius explains that would have been too much; the current healthcare system is too established for such a large-scale overhaul.

It’s fascinating to step back and recognize that, however much this Daily Show interview looks like a satirist dismantling a politician, the American audience needs the official report and its comic qualifier. Both combatants in this particular duel have important messages and deliver them entirely differently—Stewart, using humor to describe the awkwardness of reality, as well as to lampoon his opponent, and Sebelius, explaining the system as it hopefully will be. Both give sound reasons for their positions. In the end, it isn’t even an argument, but the most delightfully informative kind of public dialogue and certainly more instructive than the recent rounds of political debates.

- Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010). 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”