Jon Stewart picked a terrible time to go on sabbatical. On Thursday night, the host of The Daily Show abdicated his iconic swivel chair for the summer to direct a movie abroad. It's unfortunate timing. One could scarcely think of a period in the past five years when the voice of the progressive conscience has been needed more.
Stewart became the most important pundit in American politics — along the way earning respect from both major parties and those outside the political mainstream — by being our news media's inspector general. The Daily Show isn't the pinnacle of modern political discourse; it's the grease trap at the absurd bottom, catching the fat that drips out of network filler and unattended congressional speeches. As the smartest, most charismatic, most visible liberal outside of the White House, Stewart is also the de facto leader of the moderate left. He has maintained this position, in classic pundit fashion, by not shying away from confronting his ideological fellows for straying from the cause.
We're going to miss that between now and September 3.
The Obama administration is in the beginning stages of a crisis. On the one hand, Obama's base is outraged at revelations that grow more disturbing daily, each one worse than the last. On the other are his hunters, conservatives who have spent the past five years frantically lunging at his every weakness like he was the boss in a video game. The middle is tenuous: it would be easier if the problem was Lewinskyesque wrongdoing. Instead, the issue these revelations beg is the intractable balance between liberty and security, which if we're honest is not a question on which the American public — or our law, or our history — has ever formed consensus.
The political intrigue that looks poised to define 2013 is still in the discovery phase, but what happens next is going to be very important. When the leaks stop, the attacks and the backpedalling will begin. The shitstorm that American politics has in store this summer is going to be one of the all-time highs in volume and hypocrisy. That will be when the left most needs Jon Stewart: to call out double standards on defense and broken promises internally.
Should real crimes end up being revealed (this week started with us angry that the Justice Department had obtained call logs for a few reporters, so who knows how far it will go) it's not inconceivable that a Watergate-style incrimination could follow. Even if we've heard the last of it, Obama is now obliged to start answering the challenge he himself posed in May 23's peculiarly-timed national security address: how do we unwind a decade's assault on due process and civil liberties? All of it is going to spark dialogue that needs a prime meridian of orthodox liberal thought. Were he around to referee the politics of summer 2013, Jon Stewart might etch himself a distinctive stretch of legacy.
Not since before Obama's ascent has the left been so lost. Where should we stand on these issues of privacy? We've long prided ourselves on being able to embrace gradients and complexity, but is this a case that needs a solid line? Should we consider Democratic leadership trustworthy? These and an endless succession of other identity-defining questions lay in the near future, a period with the potential to be transformative — in any direction — for Obama and his presidency. But rudderless and frustrated are familiar feelings for progressives, and it would not be the first time that a vacuum of leadership in Washington led them to look toward a swivel chair in New York.
It's a shame there's nothing there.