In general, the Merlin as a booster engine is far lighter and much cheaper than hydrolox booster engines (but much more inneficient). They are slightly lighter and much cheaper than typical russian kerolox booster engines (and slightly less efficient than them).
I wouldn't say the Merlin is horribly inefficient, more that it's focused on optimizing cost and thrust to weight ratio rather than ISP. There really hasn't been much in the way of American development of kerolox engines lately. Most people focus on hydrolox development or buy Russian kerolox.
It was the smaller portion of constellation. SLS is roughly in the same class as the Ares V, the larger half the constellation fleet, which would undoubtedly have been far more expensive than the Ares I platform.
Senator Shelby (R-AL): Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, whose state of Alabama is also a NASA stronghold, further decried the launch as a display merely replicating what “NASA accomplished in 1964.”
“Belated progress for one so-called commercial provider must not be confused with progress for our nation’s human space flight program,” Shelby said. “As a nation, we cannot place our future space flight on one fledgling company’s definition of success.”
But casting him as an intellectual and a history buff? Have they ever even watched his program?
I wouldn't jump to conclusions about Beck as a person just based on how he acts on his program. It's fairly plausible that he hams it up a bit to play the 'everyman who loves his country' role that he's carved out. I haven't watched his program, but from what I hear it's a bit more over the top in comparison to his show back on CNN. He could very well be an intellectual and history buff, who happens to become an emotional demagogue once he's in front of the camera. Stewart and Colbert (as you noted) aren't the only ones playing up the entertainment angle.