Political Animal


October 05, 2012 12:11 PM The Double Whammy On Big Bird

By Ed Kilgore

Like a lot of debate viewers, I thought “unforced error” when Mitt Romney made his little joke about PBS funding during the debate on Wednesday night. It was sure to get attention since it represented, I believe, 50% of the budget cuts Romney was willing actually to identify in order to accomplish something like 50% funding reductions for non-defense discretionary spending over the next decade if his or Paul Ryan’s fiscal blueprints are adopted. And when you are trying to shake your rep as a soulless corporate company-closer, it’s probably not the best idea in the world to single out Big Bird, the beloved symbol of the most beloved children’s program of all time. Presumably, Romney momentarily forgot he wasn’t in a primary debate, where eliminating funding for public broadcasting (and indeed, for all the arts and humanities) has been a crowd-pleaser for many years.

As Charles Pierce points out in his inimitable way:

My wife, a journalist and something of a sage in these matters, warned me that the whole Big Bird thing was going to be the moment that echoed longest from Wednesday night’s debate. I was doubtful, in large part because I’d heard him say it all over Iowa last January and it didn’t seem to resonate with the god-enfeebled hayshakers out there at all. Now, though, it’s all people are still talking about. (On Hardball Thursday night, Chris Matthews, on whose last nerve Romney has been tromping all year, broke the “pissant” barrier on cable television by flaming the president for not confronting Romney over “this pissant argument about public broadcasting.”) If Romney is not hereafter haunted at various campaign stops by people in Big Bird suits carrying tin cups and singing, “Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime?” — well, I’m going to be very disappointed by the modern American political imagination. Dick Tuck would have had Oscar The Grouch popping out of every trash can on the motorcade route by now.

But Pierce makes a more subtle point as well: the vast house of cards of Romney’s whole fiscal scheme rests decisively at this point on his claim that he can offset the revenue cost of tax cuts (and make them non-regressive!) by sharply limiting tax deductions, quite possibly via a deduction “cap.” And given the enormous political power of the lobbies defending most major deductions (e.g., the housing and financial industries), any reduction in deductions is almost certainly going to hit the charitable contribution deduction, and hard. How do you think those contribution drives at your local PBS station are going to go, then? Will frantic cup-rattlers be reduced to saying: “Give now, or the Cookie Monster gets it”?

So Romney’s aiming to fricassee Big Bird on multiple fronts, it seems. And for a pol whose entire pitch depends so heavily on obfuscation of details and denial of any tangible consequences of his policies other than sunshine and good times, that’s not necessarily a negligible thing.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • stormskies on October 05, 2012 12:31 PM:

    Go Big Bird !!

  • Ronald on October 05, 2012 12:31 PM:

    Of course- it's what has been said all along- Mr. Romney doesn't give details because he knows that nobody will like what is in those details.
    And every time he does try and get into details, he gets into trouble.
    No wonder his entire campaign is build around, well, lying.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on October 05, 2012 12:35 PM:

    I had a talking pull-string Big Bird doll. I got it for my 4th Christmas. Ahhhh, the memories :-)

    Yeah, I thought it was rather ironic, considering that I watched the debate on PBS... And for non-cable television, PBS is great. It's rather amazing how removing the commercial element brings up the quality of programming. The only downside is that for shows longer than 30 minutes you never get any commercial pee-breaks.

  • Bob on October 05, 2012 12:53 PM:

    For those right-wingers who drive the budget-cutting discussion, PBS is low-hanging fruit. Yet, he's getting lots of push-back from all over. If he can't get anything like some consensus on eliminating this expenditure, how on earth is he going to manage the housing or charitable deductions. I guarantee that all charities in the US will rise as one to beat down any attempts to reduce or eliminate the charitable deduction. One after another, all deductions have their ardent supporters who will fight tooth, claw and fang to preserve their particular call on the Treasury. Now then, how does Mr. Romney propose exactly to make his tax reductions revenue neutral? The obvious approaches just ain't gonna happen.

  • jrosen on October 05, 2012 1:00 PM:

    Eliminating or reducing the mortgage interest deduction will affect the housing market (and the refi business) the way LeMay's bombers reconfigured Tokyo in 1945. I can hear the howling of the construction, home-loan, and house-seeking markets eve now.

  • Anonymous on October 05, 2012 1:00 PM:

    Actually I hope Mitt is met by this chant at his future campaign stops:

    "Romney lies, Big Bird dies."

  • danimal on October 05, 2012 1:15 PM:

    Is there a Dem willing to put up the "GOP Budget Balancing Big Bird Elimination Act" that defunds PBS (which is, IIRC, only getting a small portion of its funding from the feds anyway). Make a big deal about eliminating 0.012% of the budget. Explain the Big Birds gotta go. And see if the GOP actually votes to defund PBS, since most of the benefit of keeping PBS funded is to keep channels operational in Red parts of the nation. Time to call Mitt's bluff.

  • Kathryn on October 05, 2012 1:18 PM:

    Sgt. Gym Bunny.....You often make me giggle, thanks.

  • Kathryn on October 05, 2012 1:21 PM:

    Sgt. Gym Bunny.....You often make me giggle, thanks.

  • c u n d gulag on October 05, 2012 1:25 PM:

    I can see PBS having a fund-raising auction for one of Big Birds legs, and another for one of Kermit's, too.

    Why not kill them and auction off both legs from the two of them?

    Well, great birds and frogs like that, you don't kill all at one time.

    And, as I said earlier, there's nothing the Koch Brothers hate more than puppets THEY don't control.

  • JSR on October 05, 2012 1:27 PM:

    There's going to be a lot of push back from the Mormon Church against doing away with charitable contributions. There's no way they're going to be silent on that issue. The church takes in about 8 billion per year.

  • June on October 05, 2012 1:56 PM:

    The absolute glee with which Romney pointed at Lehrer and essentially told him that if he were elected president, Lehrer could kiss his job goodbye, was truly disgusting and disturbing. Viva Big Bird!

  • exlibra on October 05, 2012 1:56 PM:

    Riffing off gulag... Kermit's legs for an appetizer, Big Bird for the main course, at some fancy fundraiser? Though, given how PBS (and NPR) have been put on a diet for years, I'm not sure how much sustenance can be derived from either.

  • paul on October 05, 2012 1:57 PM:

    We know that Romney is lying about his tax plan, so talking about how the details don't add up is like getting into a deep discussion of molecular biology to figure out how long it takes unicorns to gestate.

    (But in practical terms the charitable-deduction thing would either never happen or be so riddled with loopholes that only very middle-class charities and donors would have trouble deducting the money.)

  • Hue and Cry on October 05, 2012 2:08 PM:

    Romney lies about everything. It is a chronic condition.

    Today's economic news is really great.
    Desperado Romney in Virginia detracts from the report, but Bloomberg News has called the great jobs report----> the October Surprise.

    Nate Silver has interesting things to say as well:


  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on October 05, 2012 2:40 PM:

    @ Kathryn: Anytime!!!! :-D

  • R. Porrofatto on October 05, 2012 2:58 PM:

    We already know that Romney enjoys firing people. Now we know that he likes firing people in big bird suits. Either that, or he thinks Big Bird is real, so he also likes firing giant flightless chickens.

  • Anonymous on October 05, 2012 6:58 PM:

    We can laugh, but I wouldn't count on everyone knowing that the part of the budget that goes to PBS would help very little to lower the deficit. A bright but very busy relative of mine even bought into what Mitt said. I had to give her the facts. Even then she thought the $400M could be better spent (to her credit on important life-saving programs not deficit reduction). Perhaps, I said, but how about if instead we take the money away from subsidizing the most profitable companies in the world (big oil) or from war contractors who waste more than any of us can dream of. I haven't gotten an answer but I hope she's thinking about it.

  • jpeckjr on October 06, 2012 12:05 PM:

    @JSR. Yes. And just imagine how the Catholic Church would respond to an attempt to cap or eliminate the charitable deduction. If they think the ACA's contraception provisions are an attack on religion, what would they think of this?