It is one of the most firmly established facts in U.S. politics that steady majorities of Americans dislike “government spending” as an abstract matter, but approve of most actual spending (just as they regularly endorse, invariably to the blare of conservative trumpets, a smaller government that does less, as long as the “less” involves someone else). And so politicians and entire major political parties that appeal to the public for major spending cuts tend to get a little vague about the specifics. They rely on freezes, across-the-board cuts, “sequestration” gimmicks, 30,000-foot restraints like caps-on-spending-as-percentage of GDP, and all sorts of evasions. Pressed for examples of spending they’d like to get rid of, they come up with the functional equivalent of “whatever spending you don’t like.”

Back during the Reagan Era, the favorite conservative target was “waste, fraud and abuse.” Now who’s going to defend “waste, fraud and abuse?” Another was “foreign aid,” because “foreign aid” is (a) wildly unpopular, (b) perceived as a huge spending category although it isn’t.

So it appears, via Dave Weigel (and others), that PBS, which he singled out in the first debate, has long served as Mitt Romney’s version of “waste, fraud and abuse” or “foreign aid:”

It wasn’t a gaffe. It was a statement that Romney had made many times. He’d start to mention government programs that would be on the Romney-Ryan chopping block, and lead with PBS. It was a distraction — and a very smart one. PBS’s government check makes up less than one-thousandth of one-percent of discretionary spending. Voters don’t know that. In a 2011 CNN poll, taken during the debate over cutting these funds, only 27 percent of voters knew that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting pulled less than 1 percent of the federal budget. A full 7 percent of voters thought it got more than half of the budget. At the debate, Romney repeatedly promised to start balancing the budget despite gigantic tax cuts and spending increases, but the only specific cuts he offered were Obamacare and PBS. I liked the way Matt Taibbi summed up Romney’s answer: “I’ll cut PBS, which is about one millionth of the federal budget, and some other stuff.”

I’d add that public broadcasting has long been a conservative whipping-boy, so mentioning that during the primary season made perfect sense. If I were him I would not have dragged Big Bird into a general election debate; why not just go back to those wasteful, bankrupt, crony-ridden “green jobs” projects he had already attacked and grossly exaggerated earlier in the debate? But Weigel’s right: it’s a diversion from the much bigger reality that any conceivable Romney/Ryan budget plan is going to hit a lot of accounts that are a lot bigger and more popular than PBS.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.