Politics & Government

Commentary | Big Bird symbolizes U.S. fiscal mess

The presidential campaign’s stalking horse is big, yellow and not much of a horse at all.

It’s Big Bird, the Sesame Street character.

“I like PBS, I love Big Bird,” Republican Mitt Romney said at least week’s debate. “But I’m not going to . . . keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”

Feathers officially ruffled, liberals donned Big Bird costumes in protest as Romney stumped from Virginia to Florida. Before Romney’s St. Petersburg speech, a Big Bird-suited protestor battled another dressed up as a giant Romney.

“Crack down on Wall Street, not Sesame Street,” read one sign held by a liberal feather-suited angry bird.

In the context of a presidential election, this can seem silly and small.

But that’s a good thing.

Silly things can grab the public’s attention more than, say, the implications of Medicaid. Small issues are digestible.

There’s now a fluffy, yellow, easy-to-recognize face that symbolizes the fiscal mess the country is in and the difficulties of getting out of it. Try to cut a government program and you’ll be told 1) it won’t do anything or 2) it will be catastrophic.

PBS’ defenders were quick to note during Wednesday’s debate that PBS doesn’t get all of its money from the federal government and that cutting the $445 million that flows to public television and radio stations would amount to trimming .012 percent of the nearly $3.8 trillion federal budget.

Bottom line: It wouldn’t make much of a difference to debt or deficit. So leave it alone.

That argument from the left is strikingly similar, in broad terms, to what the right says about President Barack Obama’s plans to reinstate Clinton-era tax rates on the wealthy — that it’s not enough to bring down the deficit (about $1.3 trillion) or the overall debt ($16 trillion).

Still, the value of Obama’s tax increases wouldn’t be chicken scratch either: $56.3 billion — or about 126 times the deficit-saving worth of eliminating public-broadcasting money.

Republicans are quick to say that Obama’s tax increases would slow economic growth and be counterproductive. Democrats respond by saying that the economy was doing quite well under Clinton and that the tax increases won’t hurt job creation.

The hackle-raising over Big Bird is just one of hundreds of millions of fights that erupt whenever the government tries to cut a program. Every government dollar has a constituency.

And Republicans have their own sacred bird . . . er .. . cows.

Under a budget deal last year in Congress, Republicans and Democrats agreed to automatic spending cuts that would make a serious dent in the debt, starting next January. But that would mean big cuts to many government programs, including defense, which could shoulder a 9.4 percent reduction.

Republicans say that’s bad for the country’s security. And it could be bad for Florida, according to a George Mason University estimate that found the state could lose 41,905 jobs and sustain $3.6 billion in economic losses due to the defense cuts.

Big Bird, meet Raytheon.

The Congressional Budget Office found that Congress’ deficit-reduction plan would probably send the country plunging back into recession and cause the unemployment rate to tick up to about 9.1 percent from its current rate of 7.8 percent.

Democrats, meanwhile, have voiced increasing concern over the state of Medicaid, the federal-state health-insurance program for the poor that faces cuts as well.

Weighing in at $21 billion in Florida — where more than half the program is paid through federal funds — Medicaid is a mainstay for many hospitals, nursing homes, doctors and clinics. And whenever the GOP-controlled state Legislature tries to cut Medicaid benefits, swarms of lobbyists (some of whom are Romney supporters, incidentally) work to stop it. Often children, doctors and developmentally disabled people are called in to testify against the cuts.

The same thing is happening in Washington right now with every major lobby trying to find some way to get a do-nothing Congress to do nothing when it comes to its one non-do-nothing plan to cut government.

Right after Romney made his remarks about Big Bird, the Huffington Post carried a story about a little girl from Alabama who hand-wrote him a letter, saying “find something else to cut. Don’t hurt little kids.”

As with many lobbying efforts that raise doom-and-gloom over government cuts, the talk of Big Bird’s death is probably premature.

Sesame Street is a marketing juggernaut that receives little government money and will be around, said its executives. They’re no doubt happy with the publicity. A Big Bird Twitter handle started, well, tweeting. And Saturday Night Live featured a Big Bird on its newscast.

The presidential debate also gives the public a chance to imagine the candidates as Muppets. With his upright posture and fear of the “moral” hazards of debt, Romney is like Sam the Eagle. The at-times babbling president sounded more like the incomprehensible Swedish Chef.

Romney’s remarks weren’t limited to PBS — although it was the one concrete example of a cut he wanted to make.

But Romney wasn’t specific at all about his tax plan and how it wouldn’t punch a bigger hole in the deficit. He has refused to detail the math or the specifics. Similarly, Obama has yet to show how his own long-term deficit-reduction plan is based on real math instead of budget gimmickry.

Obama, who struggled against Romney in the debate, came up with a sharp response the next day — after the president lost the debate.

“Thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird. It’s about time,” Obama joked Thursday. “We didn’t know that Big Bird was driving the federal deficit. But that’s what we heard last night. How about that? Elmo, too?”

Romney said during the debate that he wanted to combine some agencies and turn the management of some programs back to the states.

“What things would I cut from spending?” he asked. “Obamacare’s on my list.”

Obamacare, which raises a passel of taxes, also cuts future Medicare costs by about $716 billion over a decade, which would extend the life of the program. So Obamacare saves money. But it spends it, too, specifically by increasing Medicaid eligibility.

Only in Washington can that happen.

So forget about Big Bird.

We might need Count von Count on Capitol Hill, if not the White House.