Debates are often a conflict between style and substance, and arguably style tends to come out on top. But on Wednesday, a stylistic turn by former Gov. Mitt Romney hit too much substance for many and has triggered countless tweets, memes and Facebook tirades since.
The lesson here is if you are going to make the point that we all must make sacrifices in order to rein in the federal budget deficit, the way to do it is not to choose one of the smallest, but most beloved outlays of federal money you could name. Or as has been echoed tens of thousands of times since, "Don't mess (or anything else) with Big Bird."
So let's talk style. Why would Romney target the big yellow fella for his one specific program to axe? It has everything to do with the scene. Romney is there outlining what specific things he would cut to bring the deficit under control.
He replies that all programs will be subject to this test. "Is the program so critical it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I'll get rid of it. 'Obamacare' is on my list. I apologize, Mr. President. I use that term with all respect," he says speaking the president.
Then he turns and addresses the moderator, Jim Lehrer and says, "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."
There it is. Even on this stage we need to make sacrifices. Obama loses his signature domestic program of his first term and Lehrer the network he helped build.
But this is where the substance of the moment kicked in.
See, there are probably only two things I can somewhat claim to understand -- they happen to be PBS and presidential debates.
I know about PBS because for 14 years I worked at the then-NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, dealing with scores of local stations, lots of PBS bureaucrats and surly independent television producers.
I know about debates because due to my involvement with the NewsHour, I wrote a book about the subject this year that built on more than two decades of interviews with the candidates involved (the book includes a video forward by Lehrer). They were interviews we did for a documentary for said-publicly funded television network.
It is hard to believe these two subjects should be the center of as much discussion as they now are.
The battle over public broadcasting is nothing new. Someone is always proposing to end funding for it. Philosophically it is easy to understand and technologically you can sympathize with it as well. The average home now gets more than 190 channels, so why do taxpayers help fund this one? Surely, as George Will argued in 2005, "In a television universe that now includes the History Channel, Biography, A&E, Bravo, National Geographic, Disney, TNT, BBC America, Animal Planet, The Learning Channel, The Outdoor Channel, Noggin, Nickelodeon and scads of other cultural and information channels," the elements of what PBS brings to the table are covered.
George has probably not checked out the rundown of his "cultural and information channels" lately. True, if culture and information is centered on toddlers in tiaras, Amish leaving home, World War Two Nazi fighting, Top Chefs cooking and Law & Order rerunning, than we are all good. He might want to take note that The Learning Channel has lost the word Learning from its title and now goes by TLC and one glance at its schedule tells you why.
But, of course, I am a product of public television -- and radio, not that anyone mentions that one in all of this -- and so I am going to be biased. I watched a lot of Sesame Street growing up, along with lots of George's "cultural" programming like Dukes of Hazard and Looney Tunes. I went to work for Jim Lehrer when I was 22 and spent the bulk of my professional life in the system. Of course one of the odd things I don't list on my resume from my time at MacNeil/Lehrer Productions is how much I worked trying to attract corporate underwriters or foundations to support our work. It you look at who funds the program used to work for, you will find it is not just Joe Taxpayer, but right now it is 22 foundations, four corporate sponsors as well as PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It feels in line with PBS's claim out the day after the debate that "for every $1.00 of federal funding invested, they raise an additional $6.00 on their own -- a highly effective public-private partnership."
But there at the top of the list are PBS and CPB, the government-supported programs that President Romney has said need to be reduced to rein in the federal government. In the proposed 2012 budget, finding that portion headed to not just PBS, but NPR and hundreds of locally owned and operated stations, is a challenge. The bill for all of it is somewhere around $445 million a year.
Most of that money -- more than half of it -- goes directly to support the local public television and radio stations in communities all over the country. Many of those stations have lots of supporters shelling out donations every year for tote bags or coffees mugs, but in rural and poorer areas, that CPB money can make up 40 percent or more of their budget.
And so the reaction to this stylistic turn has been a frothy one from many sectors and it is obvious why. When discussing the elimination of the federal support for public broadcasting, Gov. Romney did not mention the liberal-leaning Bill Moyers or the sparsely viewed classical music performances, he went after the biggest star the network has and one that holds special power over generations -- Big Bird.PBS itself put out a tersely worded statement on the whole thing, pointing out:
In fact, our service is watched by 81 percent of all children between the ages of 2-8. Each day, the American public receives an enduring and daily return on investment that is heard, seen, read and experienced in public media broadcasts, apps, podcasts and online -- all for the cost of about $1.35 per person per year.
If you wanted to take on PBS there are lots of ways to do it. If you want to pick a fight you will probably lose in the court of public opinion, pick on a muppet -- or whatever Big Bird is.
And so Romney, perhaps running into another one of his "not very elegant" moments turned a stylistic call for communal sacrifice into a rallying cry to take to the battlements and defend Elmo, Mr. Hooper's Store and the rest of Sesame Street.
In the end, his attempt to be in the moment has become a very substantive question the campaign must grapple with: Threaten it all -- the PBS NewsHour, Frontline, NPR, your local public radio station, Clifford, The Cat and the Hat, Downton Abbey, Antiques Roadshow, POV, Iowa Public Television, Washington Week in Review, All Things Considered, oh, and Big Bird -- and the 2011 federal deficit would shrink from approximately $1,299,000,000,000 to $1,298,555,000,000. It's not nothing, but is it worth the cost?