The Red and Blue Fantasies Behind the Big Bird War

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Michael Reynolds / Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on October 3, 2012 in Denver, Colorado.

There is a reason conservatives dream of cutting funding for Big Bird, but it has nothing to do with Sesame Street or the best friend of Mr. Snuffleupagus. Behind the big yellow fowl is a fantasy: the idea that the federal budget can be balanced by doing away with wasteful ephemera that no one really needs. “I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you too,” Romney said at the first debate to Jim Lehrer, the moderator. “But I’m not gonna keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”

And there is a reason the Obama campaign is latching onto Big Bird at this late moment in the campaign, after nearly a year of Romney using his Sesame Street line on the stump. Democrats imagine the President’s disastrous debate performance can be salvaged to drive the message that Mitt Romney is Rich “Uncle” Pennybags, the rapacious capitalist who wants to bulldoze Sesame Street, replace it with an equestrian park and send the neighborhood kids to a sweatshop in China, where they can make little Big Bird dolls for half the cost.

Here’s the ad, which may be pulled soon, because the bird is not happy about being a political pawn:

Romney and Obama are hoping to use the feathery creature — a creation of one of America’s greatest artistic minds — to deliver their distorted messages. As the Hollywood Reporter tells us, the Bird can cut through the clutter. According to TiVo, which is apparently tracking everything its customers do,* “more TiVo users rewound and rewatched that moment than any other in the debate.” In other words, Big Bird crosses the blood-brain barrier faster than tax rates and entitlement debates. It has become the preferred political delivery vehicle of the day.

What about the substance? Well, there are a few things to point out. First of all, the red fantasy is just that. The only way to balance the budget over the long term, absent a remarkable rise in GDP growth all politicians promise but rarely deliver, is to raise taxes or cut spending on entitlements and defense, which make up most of the federal budget. Big Bird and his Public Broadcasting empire is less than peanuts, or about one-hundreth of one percent of the federal budget. It costs about $1.35 per American per year. Cut Big Bird tomorrow, and all the federal funding to public broadcasting — and the federal budget deficit, which is running at $1.33 trillion this year, or about 5% of the nation’s entire GDP — would remain unchanged in any meaningful way.

To put it another way, if you stopped borrowing $445 million a year to pay for PBS, you would succeed in reducing the 2012 budget deficit by 0.03%. It’s certainly more than nothing, but it would be far more meaningful if Romney spoke about other things he would do to close the budget deficit.

Of course, Romney benefits from the fact that most Americans don’t know the numbers. According to a CNN poll last year, just 27% of Americans know that the public-broadcasting tab is less than 1% of government spending. Seven percent of the country actually told pollsters that the public-broadcasting tab was more than half of the federal budget. Sit with that fact a moment.

As for the Obama ad, it’s kind of funny, which is basically what it has going for it. Beyond that, it’s self parody, the kind of attack ad the Colbert PAC would run. Is the Obama campaign claiming that one can’t both oppose funding for PBS and support regulation of Wall Street? The implication here is that Romney has only so much bandwidth. My guess is, even Elmo would find fault with that line of thinking.

Maybe there can be a silver lining to all of this. Maybe the great Big Bird distraction can be used for some good. Maybe that good can be as simple as the following: Read this post by Ezra Klein analyzing the least TiVoed moments from the first debate.

*UPDATE Oct. 10: A spokesman for TiVo contacted me to make clear that TiVo does not keep data on individual viewing habits, but rather aggregate data of viewer habits that is collected anonymously. I never said otherwise, but didn’t want to leave the wrong impression with my “everything its customers do” crack.