Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Big Bird lost, Mitt Romney won.
That’s the consensus of those who watched the presidential debate in Colorado this week, and I have to agree. Whatever President Barack Obama thought he was doing during the 90-minute debate at the University of Denver, what he did was allow those who tuned in to witness the Romney that so many of his friends and supporters have said he was all along, but whose actions and words on the campaign trail had screamed just the opposite.
The man who used to be Gov. Romney of Massachusetts — a moderate talking, moderately acting person who was not known for right-wing or even fringe-like beliefs during his gubernatorial stint in a very blue state — showed up on that stage and showed up the president of the United States.
However this election turns out, there is no question that debate night in Denver will be known as the night Romney made the Etch-A-Sketch actually work. It will be viewed as the night Romney became himself, again. It will be the night that Romney, on that stage all by himself — no handlers, no base, no conservative talking points and no restraints on his natural instincts — was allowed to connect with ordinary Americans.
It also may be known as the night when, beyond any other time during this election season, the voters became more confused about who Mitt Romney really is.
By contrast, I am not sure the voters will have any confusion about President Obama. He has always struck me as a cautious man, a person not particularly comfortable under the lights and a president confident in what he has achieved yet not particularly facile enough to toot the horn of his accomplishments in sound bites sufficient to win an America anxious to find a winner.
Given those two contrasting styles, it is no surprise that Romney trounced his opponent in the court of public opinion. The question is whether his performance will ultimately change minds already made up so that an election expected to go the president’s way will go the other way.
That’s where Big Bird comes in.
I am not sure how the large, yellow creature that has grown up with two generations of Americans, many of whom now are voters, got into the mix. But what was made crystal clear by Gov. Romney was that PBS, an American staple for family-friendly and high-quality television programming throughout its existence, would soon be on life support should he win the election.
And that fact, which represents a major change in the way America goes about its business, is the metaphor for the kind of fundamental cuts that will come should those who want to reduce government down to the size that fits their political philosophy win the day. That will entail a hard look at everything most Americans or, at least 47 percent of them, have come to believe is part of what America is and represents.
In the case of Big Bird, “Sesame Street” has been the classroom for the youngest among us. And that yellow, feathered bird has become one of the most recognizable icons for children, evoking smiles and encouraging learning for multiple generations. He represents an opportunity for early education that is the primary source of preschool learning for millions of American families at a time when research affirms that early education is crucial for future success.
But for some, PBS represents a place where government has no place. The reasoning goes like this: If the public can’t afford or won’t support this kind of programming, no matter how crucial it may be for early childhood development or later adult enjoyment, then financial assistance at any level from government is an unwarranted interference in the free marketplace. And, therefore, it must die along with all the big and little birds on the payroll.
And if we can be so heartless in dealing with the life of all the good that PBS represents, then killing substantive programs that Americans have relied on for generations — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, aid to dependent children, student loans for college, school lunch programs, education — will be an easy next step.
The debate should have really been about what kind of country we want to live in, because the direction we will go is important.
As is always the case in these matters, neither party has all the right answers. Taking the United States so far back to the time when the 47 or 87 percent of Americans had nothing, including no hope for a better tomorrow, is not a good direction. And yet the folks on his team who weren’t allowed on that debate stage with Romney believe that is the direction we should go. And they believe it to their core.
Likewise, continuing down a road which requires the government, at any and all levels, to pay for parts of daily living that will break our treasury and our spirit is not the way to go. And most Americans understand that, too.
When times were good, we didn’t care so much about making necessary changes. But once the financial floor fell out from under us, we were compelled to take a hard look at all that government has done for the citizenry with an eye toward determining what should stay and what must go, because some of the stuff government has been doing for people can no longer continue. We just can’t afford it.
The real question and the one this election needs to decide, is just how all that gets done. Who pays more, who gets less and how does it all come together?
That is what these debates should be about.
As a Nevadan, I also want to know what happens to Yucca Mountain. Yes, it is still alive and kicking — inside the box Sen. Harry Reid and the president have buried it in — but Gov. Romney’s folks (they are called Republicans, beholden to the nuclear power industry) want to give it new life.
I don’t want there to be a debate about the future of Yucca Mountain. I would love to hear Romney tell the country that if Nevadans don’t want it, it ain’t coming. And he needs to be convincing, not like George Bush, who told us one thing and couldn’t wait to shove it down our throats when the time came for action.
If you think the past four years have been rough here, you have no idea what would happen to this place if there is a high-level nuclear accident just a few miles from the Strip. Isolation and desolation are two words that spring to mind, to say nothing of the health issues that could threaten the 2 million people who live here should the inevitable occur.
I would also like to hear them debate the fate of 12 million people who have crossed our borders illegally, with the approval and encouragement of businesses and consumers throughout the country, in search of better lives for their families. What should our policy be? How secure should our borders be?
I would also love to hear those two men debate more about health care. Since they both agree we should have it for our country (I bet that was a surprise to a lot of folks), they are just arguing about how to get it done. Let’s get into the details.
When these and other topics are fully discussed, the voters will have the information they need to make an informed decision about which way to take this country.
And during that time, we will learn for certain just who Romney really is. Will he be Ronald Reagan, who took the right wing’s votes and spent their money and then ignored them while he did what he believed to be the right thing? Or will he be another kind of Republican president who just couldn’t say no to the people who got him elected, no matter how much he believed them to be wrong?
As a voter, I would like to know which Mitt Romney is asking for my vote because I liked the fellow who showed up the other night — for the first time.
But he has a long way to go to convince me because the America he has been painting during the campaign doesn’t fit with the America I grew up in and want to leave for my grandchildren.
So, let the debates continue and may the best vision — not just the best man — win.
Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.