Republican Candidate Mitt Romney referenced Big Bird in last week’s U.S. Presidential debate. A bit juvenile? Perhaps. But it was a transparent attempt to concretize a discussion about government cutbacks, a theme so overpromised and under-implemented that typical discussions of funding cuts end up as white noise.
“I like PBS. I love Big Bird . . . But I’ m not going to keep spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.” It wasn’t Mr. Romney’s most memorable line, but it definitely was more effective than the typical “blah-cut-spending-blah-deficit-blah-blah” monologues that are ignored daily.
Mr. Romney’s Democrat opponents weren’t impressed. The voters and pundits, you see, thought the campaign had moved to Sesame Street and gave Mr. Romney the post-debate nice treatment. The Democrat strategists preferred a different episode, so they crafted an ad which cast Mr. Romney as a Wall Street meanie who was only pretending to like the neighbourhood kids. To complete the Muppet-ization of the campaign, Big Bird himself got into the act too, appearing on Saturday Night Live. Ironically, his handlers cited a policy that Sesame Street characters not answer questions beyond their age suitability (who knew that Big Bird is really just six years old?). Hence Bird’s most memorable contribution to the conversation was the Sesame equivalent of calling a news conference to say “no comment”, apparently not wanting to “ruffle any feathers.”
Childish metaphors in politics may seem to distract from the important stuff that should determine elections. But, no, you can be sure that neither the introduction nor the continuation of the Big Bird theme were accidental. Romney’s communications folk looked for and found a metaphor to illustrate the choices he proposes to implement as President. “Big Bird entertainment may be nice and harmless, but we can’t afford it, and the only way to deal with the deficit and stop borrowing from strangers is to give up some nice things we can’t afford,” is the implicit message voters heard.
The implicit message from the Obama campaign’s ad? “Mr. Romney doesn’t belong on Sesame Street. He really belongs on Wall Street, where he and his corrupt friends serve only themselves and take away innocent TV programs from poor kids. Don’t let the pretenders intrude on Sesame Street.”
The reason the metaphor lives on a week later in American news coverage is that both sides think they have found a plausible metaphor to make their central campaign point. The Republican campaign is about values—the most dominant being, living within your means in this high deficit, high debt era. The Democrat campaign is about identity—Americans getting along and helping each other solve their challenges.
On the one hand it seems shallow for the serious-minded voter who really doesn’t enjoy politics but is following the campaign out of patriotic duty. On the other, it reflects the reality of modern politics: few voters have the patience or perseverance to sort through the spin and counter-spin of campaign claims. Given the almost incomprehensible size of government and the thick books of legislation and regulation that already exist and need to be amended to implement any program, platform details prove practically meaningless.
All that are left are the basics of identity and value. Carefully orchestrated and stage-managed, we have to cut through the brands to get to the real thing. It is a bit ironic that both candidates’ wives were recruited to “introduce” their husband-candidates to the country, as if their scripted spousal lines really told us anything about either the candidates as husbands or as political leaders. The brand is designed to sell rather than inform, leaving voters understandably frustrated at not getting at the heart of what they want to know.
Like it or not, we’re in for another four weeks of this. By that time, many voters will feel like Oscar the Grouch, having had their fill of trash can politics. For those turned off by it all, take heart. The campaign finale is November 6th, the credits will roll in the few days that follow, and then even those who feel obliged to follow the political episodes can feel free to change the channel.