A supporter in the front row holds a Big Bird book as President Obama speaks… (Carolyn Kaster / Associated…)
Mitt Romney may not score a lot of points beyond his conservative base going after PBS and Big Bird. But President Obama is not going to gain a lot by defending the big feathery celebrity, either.
Romney's shout-out against taxpayer-supported broadcasting, a bete noir of the right for years, came during last week’s debate. “I like PBS. I love Big Bird,” he said, “but I’m not going to keep on spending money on things, and borrow money from China to pay for it.”
Obama didn’t rise to that provocation on that night, but he and the Democrats have been hitting Romney’s proposed “Sesame Street” cut ever since. The president has accused Romney of “going after Sesame Street” while taking it easy on Wall Street, where the Republican has proposed easing the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
Obama may be right on the substance — public broadcasting, after all, takes just $430 million out of a $3.8-trillion federal budget. An Obama ad this week mocks that incongruence, saying Romney is willing to take on an “evil genius,” while the silhouette of Big Bird looms on screen. “Mitt Romney. Taking on our enemies, no matter where they nest.”
There’s no evidence that Obama’s campaign intends the ad to be anything more than a short-term goof on the opposition. And that’s probably a smart thing. Because voters, in the long run, won’t remember who started the silly Big Bird debate.
They will just think about how they really need jobs and for their take-home pay to get bigger, so they can pay their bills.
Romney may have been first to raise the Big Bird triviality and the notion of cutting the PBS budget. It was a morsel tossed to conservatives who have long loathed the notion of a public subsidy for a successful enterprise. Then, when Obama responds, repeatedly, to say how trivial the matter is, Romney says it’s time to move on.
Romney argued on the stump in Iowa on Tuesday that “we need to have a president who talks about saving the American people and saving good jobs and saving our future, and also saving the family farm.” His campaign contrasted that focus with Obama’s repeated mentions of Big Bird and Elmo — 13 in total.
Voters can be a lot like referees — they catch the player who retaliated, not the one who started the pushing and shoving. It may not be fair, but that’s the way the game is played.
When your opponent offers up Big Bird or some other piffle, it’s wise to treat the distraction for what it’s worth and then move on, lest voters think you’re the one who’s wallowing in a game of neener-neener-neener.