11th hour desperation

11th hour desperation
  •  emoticon

If you’re a liberal, you doubtlessly found much of Mitt Romney’s debate performance last Wednesday obnoxious and offensive, but what would you say was the absolute worst part?

Was it Mitt’s pivot to the centre after 15 straight months of professing his “severe” conservatism? His obtuse equivocating on what exactly constitutes a tax break for the wealthy? His unashamed revival of the ol’ “death panel” trope?

Well no need to rack your brains too hard, liberals, because the White House has decided for you: the single worst thing Romney did that night was pledge to end the federal government’s half-billion dollar subsidy to PBS.

“I like PBS, I love Big Bird,” the Governor said, but it’s not the kind of thing I want “to borrow money from China to pay for.”

Someone in the Obama campaign clearly found this hilarious, since the throwaway line has since become one of this election’s most widely quoted and meme’d. The President began working Big Bird references into his stump speeches the very next day, and has not let up since.

“Thank goodness somebody is finally cracking down on Big Bird,” he said on Thursday. “Elmo has been seen in a white Suburban heading for the border!” he added on Monday.

And now there’s even an official Big Big-themed attack ad, a move that evidently did not amuse the Jim Henson people.

If anyone doubted that the Obama campaign was caught completely off-guard by Romney’s decisive debate victory and subsequent week of favourable press, the sad spectacle of Big Bird-gate has hopefully put things in starker relief. Other presidential candidates have obviously manufactured equally dubious last-minute pseudo-scandals to distract from an 11th hour slip in the polls, but rarely have we seen one so brazenly unapologetic in its trite superficiality. The President could have waved around an aluminium pie plate with more subtlety.

An increasingly popular conservative (and liberal) explanation for the President’s poor performance last week was that the man is simply too arrogant, entitled, and complacent to realize that the boring, difficult parts of campaigning still matter, and phoning it in can still bring consequences. Team Obama had supposedly grown too smug about their relatively narrow lead in various polls and swing states, and taken it for granted that their election storyline could conclude in anything but a happy ending. The supposed weakness of Romney had been inflated from quietly understood advantage to an absurd, ridiculous caricature of the single most useless and inept opponent any incumbent president had ever faced ever. Cruise control, my good man!

If an overabundance of cocky confidence was indeed the problem, then the doubling-down on Big Bird seems like evidence of a lesson clearly not learned. The idea that a PBS-themed counter-offensive is any sense an appropriate response to the troubles highlighted by the debate is a conclusion bordering on the non-sequitur.

No one who watched the candidates duel last Wednesday can seriously suggest that Romney was in some way unduly obsessed with Sesame Street or PBS — his position on the network consumed a single sentence in a wide-ranging, two-hour discussion. Nor is it particularly obvious why exactly the Democratic base is supposed to find this particular shred of the Romney platform so uniquely horrifying. All things considered, yes, progressives would probably rather keep the federal subsidies flowing to the Children’s Television Workshop, but considering the enormous abundance of other things Romney said that they have problems with — taxes, health care, unemployment, social security, flip-flops and so forth — Sesame Street seems like on odd hill to die on.

At best, the manufactured outrage seems to reinforce many of the worst stereotypes about the Obama campaign — that it’s heavier on style than substance, that it would rather patronize its opponents than aggressively rebut them, that it’s happily indifferent towards the actual interests and priorities of progressive Americans, but very in love with itself. Ratcheting up any form of arbitrary Romney-bashing will never be unpopular with the base, of course, but in an election likely to be decided by sheer voter mobilization, Democrats can’t afford to underestimate the unattractiveness of certain increasingly evident structural flaws on their side, either.

Romney has received his much-anticipated bounce in the polls over the last couple of days, and with two more debates to go, it’s not impossible to believe there could be more bounces to come before November 6. The Romney bar certainly seems to be low enough that even the most basic displays of empathy and moderation read as statesmanlike at this point, while Obama’s inability to effectively counter exaggerates the President’s own weaknesses in the opposite direction.

Perhaps the October surprise is simply both characters betraying expectations.


  1. Kwyjor

    I don't think it's so completely miscalculated. Tax cuts and death panels and unemployment numbers are all rather abstract compared to a character with whom the majority of the voter demographic (I guess?) readily associates with childhood innocence.

    It's not necessarily a good idea, I guess, but I wouldn't call it not particularly obvious.

  2. Jake_Ackers

    Until Mitt makes an ad saying that, "Obama talks about Big Bird, I talk about Big Gov't. Obama worries about Elmo, I worry about the economy." Etc. etc. Romney wants this fight because its a joke. The economy is in the tank and all Obama can attack Mitt on is Big Bird? With this kind of coverage I think its the media's way of admitting Romney is won this part of the campaign at least.

  3. Cory

    If the president is really crafty, the ineffectual flailing (flapping?) over Big Bird is part of the expectations game for the next debate. It's hard not to assume that he'll do better at the next debate than the last one, and from there it's easy to suspect that anything less than a reversal in round 2 will be a disappointment. The O campaign may not want to let on that it learned any useful lesson from round 1.

    I personally doubt the president has the self-awareness to carry off such a strategy, or the time and/or discipline to change his game completely by next Tuesday. But I've underestimated him at most turns.

  4. Jake_Ackers

    True. Put expectations so low that everyone will love Obama no matter how he performs. And knowing the sheep out there it might just work. After the whole "Obama was above sea level" excuse, nothing surprises me. Where was Mitt then? He was on the same exact stage as Obama.

  5. Justin Ash

    I think the reason why the democratic base has latched onto the Sesame Street comment is because it's a concrete way for Obama to point out that Romney's priorities are mixed up and unrealistic when it comes to reducing the deficit. It's not so much "OMF, they're killing Sesame Street", it's more "Romney expects to solve the deficit problem by defunding PBS (0.012% of the entire federal budget). Riiiight… tell us how that goes." Neil deGrasse Tyson made a quip that it was like deleting text files from your computer to free up space from your hard drive.

  6. Psudo

    Your reasoning begs the question "Then what about Medicaid and Social Security?" Together, they constitute more than half of federal spending and that proportion will only increase in the future. Arguing that Romney is focusing on trivialities only serves to highlight the serious spending programs Democrats will commit political suicide to preserve.

  7. Yannick

    America could cut its health care costs by half by switching to single payer, if comparison to every other country in the Western World has any bearing.

    All those jobs and money wasted in insurance companies could be used to generate wealth instead. Think about it!

  8. Jake_Ackers

    India and China don't have universal healthcare like Europe nor do most major countries. The US is the 3rd largest country in the world and the only that is its size and first world.

    Why isn't there a pan European universal healthcare system? Cost. And no one would agree on anything. Try to get the Irish to pay for abortions for Scandinavians. The US is too big (population wise) and fat and smoke and don't exercise and have so many 1st world diseases like diabetes, thus its cost are different. Not to mention Europe has like no kids and the US has the millions of illegals.

    Pay insurance across state lines (worked with car insurance), tort reform (stupid lawsuits), and allow experimental procedures and medicine to be used more widely as done in Europe. And then you can just expand Medicare/aid to cover those who truly are disabled and with preexisting conditions.

  9. Jake_Ackers

    Frankly, SS should be like Herman Cain was saying. Do the Chile model. Reduced poverty by 50%. Just add a FDIC like insurance that the companies will pay to it. If you come under the regular SS payout the gov't pays the difference. Chile never has paid out even when their economy hits a low, so the money would just keep going to cover the older people still in the traditional SS model. It has the growth of the free market but with the security of the gov't. It's a perfect middle ground.

    Plus we all know SS was run like a big scam by FDR. Retirement was at 62 and the average life expectancy was about the same. So half paid and never got a cent. Today people are living what 10-15 years off of it? If not more. The old model is so outdated its not even funny. But Harry Reid said he won't address SS until it is nearing bankruptcy.

  10. @undefined

    I hate to say this, but a large block of their voting demographic never got beyond Sesame Street. There's even gangs that use names from the show as their gang name. Not the most grown up thing a thug can do…

  11. Jake_Ackers

    He was offering an example. This is just the left nit picking. When he offers something like the Ryan Plan, they whine and say its not enough and don't offer an alternative. When he gives an example, they make it into a joke. No matter what he does, they point the finger and forget how many are pointing back.

    Bush tried to fix Social Security, Reagan did fix it, the Dems like Harry Reid said he will only address it once it goes bankrupt.

  12. Rachel Bush

    Whenever this debate is had, I personally think the territory covered is a mile wide and the discussion is an inch deep. This is a serious issue that does not get much debate because we can be talking about some pretty silly things, so it is more ripe than others for crass emotional appeal by both sides as a ploy toward fleeting attention spans. So this is a pretty long post.

    Well, the point is that when a company invests in research and development, after a while they can get as much as $8 for every dollar they spend on their investment. By investing in public broadcasting, the federal government can encourage youth to go into science and engineering.

    Many people I've spoken to make career decisions that trace back to events from when they were really young, like someone involved in dance and theater whose parents took them to a dance academy when they were young. My parents were never rich enough to do that, but they had me watch PBS' Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Magic School Bus. It fostered in me a deep interest in science in me and I became a geology major.

    Well, that's kind of a schmaltzy anecdote, but my point is that a function of government is to bridge the research and development gap by taking on projects that take a very long time until they become profitable. An example would be the rural telecommunications networks the government funded during the Depression. I think you get a much better payoff than when you fund Social Security or Medicare for the elderly.

    Suppose the government in the private market is acting as the only corporation whose leader has a lifespan spanning multiple generations. The Presidency is acting as an office, not as a person, unlike a CEO who only has incentive to produce quality spanning a mortal lifetime.

    From the perspective of multi-generational profitability, you should first be asking yourself if public broadcasting will pay out dividends through encouraging people to go into fields that are in the most demand. Since people are human, and profitability is not always the deciding factor in career choices, you exploit any interest early in math and science to encourage the most output. You try to dissuade them from the beliefs the most reliably profitable jobs are pretty boring.

    Supposing for the sake of argument that over 100 years PBS would be a profitable government investment, it begins to boil down to ideology. "Should government intervene to help public broadcasting" is viewed by Republicans as wasteful spending to help some TV show stay on the air. It's viewed by Democrats as a charity like Medicare, a charity to providing wholesome TV content, and the leftwing point of view is usually that charities are insufficient to stand on their own because of selfish human nature.

    That's the debate we're having, and I think it's really not the debate we should be having because so much of it is hidden behind the "style" issue. If PBS were just some channel designed to provide quality content free from the icky ads those other channels provide, I'd agree with the Republicans. It's not the government's responsibility to be a broadcast daycare center.

    When many Democrats speak about PBS, this isn't what they're talking about, and it's like we're talking about entirely different things but don't know it. Obama is using Muppets as a symbol of educational programming. Liberals are using educational programming, funding for things like National Public Radio's Science Friday, as a bellwether on whether or not the government will act to fund science or whether they will cut it.

    With a generic Republican they think he will either be a conservative that would cut science to save money, or a conservative who would make exceptions for science on the long-term investment grounds I detailed. As an example of this type of political maneuvering, Newt Gingrich tried to present himself as the latter person.

    So the confusing layer of symbolism goes science funding -> science awareness programming -> education programming -> … Muppets. The last boils down to a typical emotional appeal to the soccer mom demographic. The arguments I presented earlier are never even being articulated by liberals, they just want to shout "Muppets!" to try to win people over that don't follow politics with a single word.

  13. Damien RS

    You mean Medicare (care for old and disabled people) and Social Security. Medicaid (long term care for the poor elderly, care for poor mothers and children) is smaller.

    And the political suicide has been in attacking Medicare and SS, which favor a large coherent voting bloc. Clinton pointing out the benefits of Medicaid seems to have been part of Obama’s convention bounce, too.

  14. ThePsudo

    You're right, I meant Medicare.

    I didn't say they WERE committing political suicide already, I said they WILL. That is, they have the will to commit political suicide if it comes to that, and (barring the kinds of reforms they abhor) it will eventually come to that. They can still postpone for a decade or two, maybe more, before circumstances bring them to rethink their position.

    It's kinda odd how social programs are the point where Democrats want to conserve status quo and Republicans are the proactive reformers.

  15. Yannick

    If by "reform" you mean "remove". That's actually more of a reactionary platform than a reformist one.

  16. Jake_Ackers

    Actually it was the Democrat Governor of Tennessee who get rid of the state run health insurance. No politician will get rid of SS or Medicare/aid. Who do you think old people vote for? Could it end up as a voucher system or partly privatized? Yah but the gov't will always back up those plans in case the free market fails. Most likely through something akin to a FDIC insurance.

  17. Jake_Ackers

    When SS goes bankrupt and Medicare and Medicaid is so bloated that even Dems will cry foul, the Reps will just remind everyone of Bush and Ryan. And then point to Harry Reid and Obama.

  18. Bob

    I'm not sure this is a very fair treatment- the Obama campaign and other liberal groups attacked Romney's debate performance on all of the grounds you mentioned- it's more that the Big Bird bit is what (some) media and (some) liberals are focusing on. By treating this as the sole or dominant response or criticism, you seem to be perpetuating the practice of manufactured narrative that your cartoon and post attempt to criticize.

  19. Colin Minich

    I would be inclined to agree with you, J.J., the way that would try to equate what happened to Martha Coakley in MA against Scott Brown. I voted for Brown personally, but I remember seeing Coakley's campaign utterly smug about poll numbers and when Brown surged ahead with actual knowledge about MA residents and Martha having to get Obama to promote her in utter desperation, this is what the post-first debate aftermath is showing me. Obama MUST get back on the ball and while leading a decent campaign, MUST NOT get complacent with arguments and show the utter failure and/or lack of logic behind Republican foreign policy. I have read from Reuters that Romney is apparently seeking middle ground behind GWB's "freedom agenda" and a "pragmatic" approach seeing the exhaustion from Iraq and Afghanistan. I call BS on that though. Republicans, at least the ones hijacking the party now from the Bachmanns to the Boehners to the Norquists, are NOT aiming for middle ground in anything. And while I like to be a foreign policy conservative in issues like North Korea or not placating to anything Iranian, they scare even me. Obama has to get back on track pointing this out and not using parlor tricks like friggin' Big Bird.

  20. Jake_Ackers

    Anyone who ever gets close to the Oval Office (Presidents mostly) tend to all moderate when they see reality. Look how much Obama has flip flop on foreign policy. Because he is too much of an idealist for this day and age. The same goes for the Bachmans of the world. Another kind of idealist who will either bomb everyone or simply talks like that for votes. In reality you need to talk and sort it out. Again foreign policy is 9/10ths about one thing: persona of leadership. And in that respect Obama has been massively lacking. Note I said PERSONA, so its about how Americans and the world perceive you, not like or agree with you but perceive.

  21. Jon B.

    How did Romney pivot to the center? What positions did he change during the debate, and why isn't the Obama campaign able to illustrate these changes in their commercials, like Dubya constantly did with Kerry? Why haven't any of the voices of The Right denounced his flip-flops?

  22. Jon B.

    Fact is, Romney's attack on PBS and his pointing out that the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) is a Death Panel is actually a tack to the Right.

  23. Trenacker

    Romney suddenly went full reverse on the stridency of his opposition to various bipartisan or White House initiatives. Yesterday, it was full and comprehensive opposition. No compromise. Roll back. Last Wednesday, the tune changed. Romney wanted modification, not repudiation. He wanted to appear to agree with Obama in theory, just not in practice. Hence, Obama should have grabbed Simpaon-Bowles, but Romney had other ideas.

  24. Jon B.

    He's been saying modification & Repeal/Replace on ObamaCare since the Primaries, which is one of the reasons it took so long for him to seal the nomination. It's nothing new. He's been saying he wants to eliminate deductions for months now. This debate revealed nothing new to anyone paying attention, other than comparative competence to the President.

  25. Jake_Ackers

    Because people like what Mitt has become. People just didn't like Kerry. Plus Romney save it in a way that only pundits split the hairs, most people won't see anything wrong in it. Aka he flips as much as any other politician would and has done. Obama's switch to gay marriage clearly was for money and votes. So it's a double edged sword.

  26. Trenacker

    My take on the situation? Team Obama is trying to make stick the very same caricature that Romney shed so effortlessly last Wednesday night, of Ebeneezer Mitt, the glad-handing chum of Mr. Moneybags. The Big Bird attack ad is much less about a big yellow bird and much more about the familiar faces of soulless avarice.

    It's not the most compelling political theatre I've ever watched, but it could be sensible, assuming one takes a certain perspective. Remember: Chicago is looking at the debate performance and drawing certain conclusions that will inform all of their decisions going forward. First, their candidate matched long-form descriptions of public policy with pithy statements of sentiment and came up very short. Unless it's because Obama is diverging from script, I expect we'll hear less and less about his roadmap for anything through November. Second, death panels are so much a liability for the White House, they can't afford to perpetuate the story one moment longer — not even by denying it outright. Third, Obama went into the campaign describing himself as the candidate who would make "the wealthy pay their fair share," whereas Romney is the champion of tax cuts. I think they saw how dangerous that sort of honesty can be with the electorate, and are now regretting ever having talked taxes.

  27. Jake_Ackers

    Wasn't Obama the one that said that candidates who make issues about little things don't have a leg to stand on, on other issues. He said something to that affect back in 2008. Either way, seriously? PBS? Come on. Get over it. Dorra and Spongebob are rolling in cash and I'm sure Elmo and Big Bird can do just fine without a gov't subsidy. Plus a gov't operated channel just screams Orwellian to me. I know its suppose to be nonprofit and not biased (which it is) but it makes no sense to keep using taxpayer money. If its that important, I'm sure people will give money to it. Put your money where your mouth is.

    Romney was making a good point. We are borrowing to spend on things we really don't need. Do we need PBS? Yes. Do we need to borrow from China and get taxpayers to pay it off? No.

  28. Trenacker

    I don't think most folks, and especially not conservatives, take issue with Romney's stated goal. I also suspect that most of his base and many undecided voters agreed with the philosophical just of his infamous "47%" comment. Heck, I would even bet that the Big Bird shot was scripted. Team Romney isn't losing any sleep over liberal and media preoccupation with that specific comment. The real issue is that it was, in many ways, the only detail about his agenda that he offered, and really the only consistent position that night.

  29. Jack B Nimble

    Barack Obama Acceptance Speech – DNC 2008

    "If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from. You make a big election about small things. "

  30. Rachel Bush

    That's the first ideological issue taken care of, and I think the second is the degree to which government should have a role in influencing children in ways that everyone can agree would be positive — whether or not things like childhood obesity prevention programs should be funded. On one hand you might say that this begins the entrance of government into nanny state territory. The government really should play no role in compensating for bad parents.

    That's the first ideological issue taken care of, and I think the second is the degree to which government should have a role in influencing children in ways that everyone can agree would be positive — whether or not things like childhood obesity prevention programs should be funded. On one hand you might say that this begins the entrance of government into nanny state territory. The government really should play no role in compensating for bad parents.

    Then the argument in favor of these programs delves into what Joe Biden called "leveling the playing field." I don't think people who have made nothing but bad choices should be getting handouts, but I also believe American government has a rule in guaranteeing the American mantra of equal opportunity. If you're a kid with a bad parent, you don't have the same shot at life as a kid with a good parent. Funding for public broadcasting is a non-intrusive, relatively inexpensive way of making sure they get exposed to something positive /at least once/.

    If public broadcasting returns a profit, then cutting it becomes mainly based in ideological belief that government has no place stepping in with other people's money to help families..

    So, if you believe that public broadcasting funding would offer a return on a country's investment over 100 years, it becomes one of the places you would cut last, not one of the programs you would cut first. So that's why Democrats are going "Muppets!" everywhere, they expect the layers of symbolism and dog whistles to just cascade through people with heavy interest in science, while hitting the soccer moms.

    One last thing: Does Sesame Street actually need all that funding when it gets so much revenue from merchandising? http://www.slate.com/articles/business/explainer/

    Well, regardless of what you decide based on those stats, I really think that Sesame Street isn't that good compared to all the other shows from PBS, so it's really aside from my point.

  31. Jake_Ackers

    Simply put. PBS doesn't need taxpayer money. It can find a way just like everyone else in the world does of making money. Which in turn would generate more economic growth and jobs. As opposed to just asking for money.

  32. Rachel Bush

    Well, my first point that got deleted by the system was that there are many government programs that more than pay off on their investment, but well-past the lifetime of the people that make the decisions, at way too great a start-up cost for many corporations to consider.

    As an example, consider rural telecommunications. A lot is owed to government programs during the Great Depression. It just wasn't feasible to set up that much infrastructure where there were so few customers per unit land.

    The kind of investment payoff that PBS provides is multi-generational. Through their math-and-sciencey programs, children are encouraged to go into economic fields that are the most reliably profitable. If all else were equal, you might naturally expect PBS to do worse in ratings, considering it has another factor to balance in its programming. Secondly, the kind of payoff it theoretically provides toward the economy as a whole, is not necessarily something that would make it back to PBS.

    If the government's goal is greater GDP over the long-term, then the places where government should intervene in private enterprise are the places where the shortcomings of human nature — oriented toward what lasts best over our mortal lifespans, or the short-term — have to be addressed.

    If you ideologically accept that government has a place in intervening in private enterprise only in the instances that meet the qualifications above, instead of asking yourself "Is PBS profitable as a company?" you might do a scientific study to determine any indirect effect on the GDP per year.

    There are many places where I would definitely agree with you. I don't think the government should have any role in promoting fine arts. The average US public broadcasting station carries 357% more fine arts-type programming than other stations. Although it's commonly thrown out that PBS news has been voted "most trusted" several times in the Roper Public Affairs & Media Poll, I would agree that the federal funding involved means there should be a higher bar than that.

    So really I'm just talking about whether science/math/educational programming is multigenerationally profitable investment for a country. If you look on all the other channels you see a tendency for The Learning Channel to devolve into the "Toddlers in Tiaras" channel, repeated ad nauseum.

  33. Jake_Ackers

    Everything you said is true to a degree. But PBS doesn't need taxpayer money to do it. Dora the Explorer and Spongebob survives without it why can't Big Bird.

  34. Rachel Bush

    Once commercials become involved, there is the temptation to draw away from the most effective educational content toward entertainment and what keeps people from changing the channel.

  35. Rachel Bush

    Sorry, I had a huge post earlier before my second one but the website ate it. I spent a really long time thoughtfully typing it out, took up the longest amount the site would allow me, and I'm pretty sad it's gone. I've followed J.J.'s comic since 2006 and I am an incredibly huge fan.

  36. Rachel Bush

    Sorry I messed up posting it, I kind of wish I could just delete everything now…but I took 2 hours to type what was there!

  37. rmjones13

    Romney got a boost in the polls?


    …Um, which polls are you talking about? In some he gets a boost, in some he falls behind, and the sampling is equally bad/good on both parts. /Is a bit of a poll junky so would appreciate more poll links

    As for the Big Bird thing- the Liberal Media actually has critiqued everything else Romney did- the Big Bird just started coming up after a couple of days. Obama's administration seems to be the one fixated on it, and thus the liberal media started following more closely. It's kinda ridic. But I think a part of it is because Romney has only "taken Ryan's plan into consideration and are making their own", hasn't confirmed any cuts explicitly yet except the Healthcare, and so PBS is like… the only one he has really confirmed, hasn't backtracked on, and isn't controversial. Because seriously, who can hate PBS? Even though the fixation of Big Bird is annoying, I gotta admit that I would probably be posting a lot of annoying Magic School Bus pics turned political if he had made a dig against that. PBS is like, the least controversial and most innocently beloved government funded program you can attack.

    So I get why Obama's campaign brought it up, though I hope that don't keep on drilling that point home. We get it already!

  38. Colin Minich

    Heh…now I wonder how people will think of the VP Debate, because Joe Biden glared his tiger fangs on the big fat kill that was Paul Ryan. While Biden was a bit too aggressive, I found his laughing amusing at the Ryan ideas. Paul Ryan himself had advocated Ayn Rand which to me is a huge no-no and he really had zero answer for the economy. He said the what, but completely failed with the how when asked multiple times. Biden's only slip really was the foreign policy which came off more as a glossing over than an abject failure. GOP foreign policy however is far less desirable which so far has come off as "let's be an antagonist to anyone who disagrees with us." I like to have a hard line with countries like North Korea and Iran, but whoever thinks Obama is playing soft ball with them needs their head examined. You don't rush off into conflict. Iraq taught us that…I hope…and I hope the GOP learned.

  39. Ben

    i think what really got everyone focused on the Big Bird thing is that conservatives are upholding it as a good move to saving millions while at the same time bashing Obama for cutting billions as not enough.
    It's the double standard