Once Mitt Romney brushes the yellow feathers off his sharply tailored suit, the GOP presidential candidate may regret ever having tangled with Big Bird, increasingly looking like the signature moment of last week's presidential debate.
Apologizing in advance to moderator Jim Lehrer, he said, "I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. ... I like PBS. I love Big Bird," adding that he wouldn't continue borrowing money from China to pay for him.
Perhaps Romney hopped to show he would be bold and fearless in cutting the federal budget. Polls show a large majority of Americans like PBS, strongly favor the children's educational show "Sesame Street," and love the show's Big Bird character, a genial 8' 2" mound of feathers and foam rubber that sometimes thinks it's a lark, sometimes a canary. But mess with Big Bird at your peril.
To get the dull stuff out of the way first: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting receives $445 million, about 1/100th of 1 percent of the federal budget. Very little of that finds its way down to "Sesame Street," which is largely self-supporting.
And in the massive spectrum of American borrowing, we don't actually borrow all that much from China. We borrow most of it from ourselves. If Romney really wanted to cut the deficit, he could propose ending the favored tax treatment of carried interest on Wall Street.
You would think the threat to Big Bird -- no one seemed to care about poor Lehrer -- seemed like one of those throwaway lines that would quickly blow over. No such luck for the Romney camp.
Big Bird quickly became a staple topic of late-night comedians; he -- and we're only assuming it's a he -- was all over the Internet, made a guest appearance on "Saturday Night Live," and come Monday morning he was on the front page of The New York Times.
The political analysts speculated that Big Bird might become as ubiquitous to this campaign as Joe the Plumber did in 2008, when he also turned out to be something of a semi-fictional character.
Romney would like the voters to remember one thing from this debate: He won. That may not be the voters' takeaway. Jennifer Mercieca, an expert in political discourse at Texas A&M, told the Associated Press: "We learned that he wasn't concerned about Big Bird. That might be the one thing we remember about this debate."
Dale McFeatters is a senior writer for the Scripps Howard News Service.