The Double Whammy On Big Bird

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.