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Why Is Mitt Romney Picking a Fight with Big Bird?

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Big Bird, far left, and other "Sesame Street" puppet characters pose next to a temporary street sign at West 64th Street and Broadway in New York City on Nov. 9, 2009 — the eve of the 40th anniversary of the initial broadcast of the children's television show

Like most professional opinion havers who watched Wednesday’s debate, I thought Mitt Romney had a good night, but I was puzzled by his volunteering that he wants to end government funding for public broadcasting.

I wasn’t surprised that he said it; it’s been a conservative goal for about as long as there’s been PBS and NPR. But I was surprised by how he said it, as he was speaking to Jim Lehrer (ironically, of PBS): “I’m sorry, Jim. I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you too. But I’m not going to — I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”

I’ve been covering the waxing-and-waning threats to cut public-media funding long enough to know one thing. It’s the defenders of public money who bring up Big Bird — and Elmo and Arthur — whenever this happens. It personalizes the debate. It gets people worried about their favorite characters and educational TV for their kids; it conjures the specter of heartless politicians killing Big Bird.

And if you’re a conservative budget cutter or culture warrior, you do whatever you can not to cite Big Bird, or Sesame Street, or any cuddly figure that millions of people love. You talk about Bill Moyers, or a documentary you charge with liberal bias, or the elitism of NPR executives, or some show with lesbians in it. You tell voters that coastal socialist elites are taking your money to undermine your values! You only mention Big Bird, if you must at all, to say that government money or no, Big Bird will be fine.

Which is more or less true: popular shows like Sesame Street and Arthur can get a lot of money from licensing. I laid this out last year in a post that goes into it in a lot more detail, but the real disaster would be for local PBS stations in small markets — often in rural red-state areas — that provide an expensive service in poor regions. Big Bird won’t get fired; the question is whether you’ll still have a local station to bring you Big Bird. (I will, regardless, as will the Romneys and Obamas, because we’re all pampered coastal elites.)

In any case: crying “Big Bird” is usually a way of muddying the issues over public-broadcasting defunding, which would have very real but very different effects. And it usually works, which is why the government still funds public broadcasting.

So why would Romney invite Big Bird’s name into the discussion on purpose? Off the bat, he opens himself up to loaded attacks. Almost immediately, someone created a “Fired Big Bird” parody account on Twitter. The head of PBS issued a fiery statement against Romney’s proposal. And Barack Obama, diffident at the debate, was using it Thursday for esprit de l’escalier zingers: Romney was “finally getting tough on Big Bird … he’ll get rid of regulations on Wall Street, but he’s going to crack down on Sesame Street.”

But what Romney said was not a slip-up or gaffe. It wasn’t even new. Since the primaries, he’s used this language on the stump too. It’s an interesting tack: Romney is essentially saying, “Hey, I like the things you like too. We just can’t afford them.” It takes the debate out of the usual culture-warrior frame (liberals are using our money to undermine our values!) and puts it in a dollars-and-cents frame. (Speaking of that frame, it is true that $400 million–plus for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is a teensy slice of the deficit, but that’s another, long-running argument.)

I’m not sure it’s actually a good political strategy, given that it’s set up his opponents with a fight on their preferred terms. But it’s an interesting way of changing the strategy anyway — seeing if he can win the argument by confronting the we-love-Big-Bird sentiment directly.

And it’s worth noting that the old conservative tack — NPR is liberal, Elmo will be fine — has never actually succeeded in ending public-radio and TV support. I’ve always doubted it was ever really meant to, so much as it was a reliable way to whip up the base by bundling budget anxieties and the culture war in one overblown package.

Romney’s angle may not work, and of course I don’t know who’s going to win the election. But it could be a sign that — more than past politicians demagoguing the no-tax-money-for-PBS argument — he actually intends to do it if he gets the chance.

Update: Here, my standard disclosure: I voted for Obama in ’08 and plan to do so again in ’12. To paraphrase Walter Mondale: most people who write about politics have voting preferences; the difference is, they won’t tell you theirs and I just did. To read my fuller thoughts on political writing and disclosure, click here.