By Gregory Wallace, CNN
Washington (CNN) – Saturday’s debate between conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly and liberal funnyman Jon Stewart was nothing like the televised presidential debates: After all, the prize for winning was a wrestling belt.
But nonetheless, the two television personalities stood behind lecterns and took their chances at questions from the moderator and audience.
“What do you think is the most fundamental problem with the public political discourse?” the moderator asked.
“Stewart,” O’Reilly snapped back.
Between their laughs and shenanigans, references to Big Bird and Clint Eastwood, O’Reilly and Stewart fit in something besides talking points.
“Honestly, I think we’ve lost our ability to problem-solve. We’re having the wrong conversation in this country,” Stewart said in response to the discourse question. “The conversation we’re having in this country is about a fundamental clash of civilizations when I think we have basically agreed that we’re a social democracy. Whether you want to get around it or not, this isn’t a conversation between freedom and tyranny and capitalism and socialism.”
Reilly followed, “The problem with the discourse deal is capitalism.”
“You can make a lot of money by being an assassin,” he said. “It doesn’t matter: right wing or left wing. You go in and you’re a hater — radio, cable, in print, whatever — you can get paid. And there’s a people who do that. And they go in, they don’t even believe half the stuff they say. … Capitalism drives that. There are people — Americans — who want to hear hate.”
He noted that “we have to live with it, freedom of speech.”
O’Reilly, who hosts “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News, and Stewart, who hosts “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, are natural sparring partners based on their ideology and have faced off before on each other’s shows.
But on Saturday, they took their differences onstage in what they billed as “The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium” at Washington’s George Washington University. Former Fox News host E.D. Hill moderated the discussion, though at times O’Reilly and Stewart largely cast her aside, dominating the show with their back and forth.
Stewart accused his rival of living on “b——- mountain,” which he described as a conservative alternate reality where “our problems [are] amplified and our solutions simplified, and that’s why they won’t work.
“We face a debt crisis that we’ve never faced before. We are merely weeks from being a failed state or even worse, Greece,” Stewart continued. “And the way to solve it is to kill Big Bird.”
O’Reilly criticized Stewart for skirting the issues, and criticized President Barack Obama for feeding an “entitlement society.”
“This is not how the Founding Fathers envisioned us,” he said.
“We have a president here who believe in social justice, he wants to take your money, my money, the money of the 1%, and he wants to give it to Bill Moyers,” O’Reilly continued, questioning why federal funds were going to causes such as PBS.
The two speckled the show with references to moments from recent political discourse, such as Big Bird — another PBS reference which GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney raised at Wednesday’s presidential debate — and movie star Clint Eastwood, who took the stage at the Republican National Convention earlier this summer.
Their jousting topics ranged from health care to entitlement spending; from Christmas to government counting of calories.
The solutions ranged from conventional to unconventional, such as O’Reilly’s suggestion that Obama should send a stronger signal to Iran, one of Israel’s foes, by aligning himself closer with the Israeli prime minister.
“All Barack Obama has to do is go on a double date with Bibi, with Netanyahu,” O’Reilly said. “Just double date with him, go anywhere with him, that sends a little message to Tehran: They might be making up some stuff.”
And the two used their newly developed debating experience to offer Obama and Romney something for their next debates: Do away with the town hall meeting style, and go at it over the issues.
“I would rather have them like Stewart and me, right up here,” O’Reilly suggested, to applause. “That’s how to do it.”
And in a moment of agreement, Stewart went along with the idea. “Yeah, fine.”