For a few minutes in last night’s presidential debate, the two candidates were discussing the financial reform law. It was a moment that highlighted all that is wrong with the American political system: the incumbent trumpeting the very timid reforms as an important accomplishment, the challenger declaring it a disaster and vowing to repeal parts of it without appearing to understand either the parts he would repeal or the parts he would leave standing. Neither Obama nor Romney seems to have figured out that the current economic circumstances are different from what we saw in the 1970s and 1980s, so they are not really qualified to pontificate on the state of the national economy in the first place, but to make matters worse, their thoughts were so abstract it was hard to say what any of it really meant. It was painful to watch.
Romney is not a numbers guy and easily confuses millions, billions, and trillions, a point that struck home when he proclaimed, with more conviction than anything else he said all evening, that he would balance the budget by canceling Sesame Street. For those not familiar with it, Sesame Street is almost the longest-running program on U.S. television, a low-budget early education program that combines live action, animation, and some iconic puppets, including a large yellow bird called Big Bird. “I love Big Bird,” Romney said, as he hastened to add, in so many words, that sometimes you have to kill the ones you love.
The non sequitur of confusing the scale of a TV show budget with that of the federal budget took Twitter by storm and was the most discussed topic from the debate for the remaining hour of the debate and afterward.
Romney supporters worried about all the attention Sesame Street was getting. “Seriously? You guys are talking about a TV show?” But it was that moment that best symbolized the debate. Most of what the candidates said on taxes, jobs, and banking regulation was vague and, in Romney’s case, contradictory, but Romney was clear, specific, and passionate when he talked about firing Big Bird. It was the moment that stood out.
Romney likes to frame issues in terms of stark choices, and whether he meant to or not, he introduced just such a split in the debate. You have to choose between Wall Street and Sesame Street, he told voters — and there was no question that Romney assumed voters would support his decision to throw a few new favors in Wall Street’s direction while he simultaneously demolished Sesame Street.
I am not so sure that was a good political calculation on Romney’s part. First, he vowed that if he is elected, you will never see Big Bird again. But a television show does not last for nearly half a century without having its fans, and it is easy to imagine a few million voters asking themselves if they really want to vote to kill off some of their (or their children’s) favorite TV characters.
Second, the specific focus on an educational program seems to indicate a belief that early childhood education, and by extension all education, is too unimportant a matter for the government to be involved with. Many voters will disagree with Romney’s priorities in this area.
Third, the United States is prosperous enough to have both Wall Street and Sesame Street. The last half-century of our history is proof that it can be done. When Romney sets up a choice between Wall Street and Sesame Street, it is a false choice. It is a reasonable answer to say that you want to have both. Even if voters accept the premise that they have to choose, I am not so sure that a majority would choose Wall Street over Sesame Street as readily as Romney did.
Fourth, when Romney talked directly about “firing” Big Bird along with the debate’s moderator, Jim Lehrer, who anchors a news show that Romney would also cancel, it plays into the simplistic narrative that Romney’s whole career has been about cost-cutting in the form of job cuts. The fact that this was the one moment when Romney really sounded sure of himself does perhaps suggest that job cuts are the one thing he is actually good at.
Last night’s debate was Romney’s last chance to define himself and his candidacy to voters. This was something he had somehow failed to do in the primary season, at the convention, on his campaign web site, or in his attack ads. He could have said anything he wanted. What he chose to say is that he wants to fire Big Bird. And that, I am afraid, is likely to be remembered, subliminally at least, as the defining policy of his campaign.
Update: On Thursday, Obama noted Romney’s twisted Wall Street/Sesame Street dichotomy when he summarized Romney’s top financial policy priorities:
He’ll get rid of regulations on Wall Street — but he’s going to crack down on Sesame Street.