Who would have guessed? Of all the issues raised in the first presidential debate, the only issue that ended up having legs – was an 8-foot-tall yellow bird.
One thing for sure: Had Mitt Romney realized that the one issue everyone would remember from that debate was not taxes, jobs or health care, but Big Bird, he would never have promised to serve it up for Thanksgiving dinner. Pressed by moderator Jim Lehrer to give an example of what government-funded programs he would cut, Romney said: "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 keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it."
Obviously, he had no idea how popular Big Bird is – and how little he costs. As executives at PBS were quick to point out, "Over the course of a year, 91 percent of all U.S. television households tune in to their local PBS station. In fact, our service is watched by 81 percent of all children between the ages of 2-8." Eight million viewers tune in to "Sesame Street" each week.
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PBS is a national treasure, of which "Sesame Street" is the crown jewel – and they're both worth borrowing money from China for. Indeed, most Americans would rather borrow money from China to pay for PBS than for another tax cut for Mitt Romney, Donald Trump and their billionaire cronies.
But the truth is, we don't have to borrow from China to pay for PBS, because we can easily afford it. PBS gets only about 15 percent of its budget from government funds. Total federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – which supports both PBS and NPR – amounted to only $430 million in 2011, which is a mere .00012 percent of the 2011 budget.
One other important fact about public broadcasting: Unlike Mitt Romney, Big Bird is actually a job creator! As reported by Huffington Post, Sesame Workshop, which produces "Sesame Street," made $46.9 million in revenue from licensing Big Bird, Elmo, the Cookie Monster and other characters in 2011 – and maintained a work force of 1,320 employees. Hasbro, the Rhode Island toy company behind "Let's Rock Elmo" and other "Sesame Street" products, generates $70 to $75 million in annual sales and employs 5,900 people. Just like workers in the factories he bought when head of Bain Capital, Mitt Romney would put them all out of a job.
Romney's attack on Big Bird shows, again, how badly out of touch he is with average Americans. When you have an army of nurses and nannies in every one of your many houses to take care of your kids, you don't need "Sesame Street." It also provided President Obama an excellent opportunity, which he gleefully took advantage of, to accuse Romney of wanting to ease up on Wall Street, while cracking down on "Sesame Street." And not just on Big Bird. "Elmo, you better make a run for it," Obama told students at Cleveland State University the day after the debate.
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But, as fun as it is for Obama to mock Romney for painting a target on Big Bird, it's also risky. Because by focusing on PBS, Obama ignores the much more drastic cuts a Romney presidency would bring. There's no way Romney can increase defense spending by $2.1 trillion over the next decade, as he proposes, and extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, without deep cuts to domestic programs that millions of Americans depend on.
There's no way of knowing exactly where those cuts would fall because, except for Big Bird, Romney has refused to specify what programs are on the chopping block. But according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, 62 percent of $5 trillion worth of cuts in Ryan's budget, which Romney has endorsed, come from programs that benefit low-income Americans: Medicaid, Pell Grants, job training and food stamps. The Center for American Progress estimates that 31 million poor or disabled Americans would lose Medicaid coverage under proposed Romney/Ryan budget cuts.
By focusing on Big Bird, Obama ignores the full disastrous impact of Romney's meat-ax approach to federal spending. As a signal of wholesale cuts to every government program helping the poor or middle class, Big Bird is only the canary in the coal mine. When Big Bird's in trouble, we all should run for our lives.