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Why the Republicans' newest fight with Big Bird matters

A quarter of a century after Newt Gingrich went after funds for public broadcasting, some Republicans are apparently ready for Round Two against Big Bird.

Shortly after Republicans made dramatic gains in the 1994 midterm elections, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich was eager to get to work on his plans to balance the budget. High on the Republican's list was eliminating federal funds for public broadcasting.

The move was not well received. In fact, it led to headlines such as, "Are Newt and His Cronies Afraid of Big Bird?" When the Clinton White House prevailed in budget talks, and support for public broadcasting survived, there were related headlines such as, "Big Bird Taken Off Death Row."

In other words, Republicans picked a fight with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — and Big Bird won.

A quarter of a century later, it appears the GOP is taking aim at the 8-foot, 2-inch Muppet again. NBC News reported yesterday:

Big Bird's seemingly innocuous — and obviously fictional — announcement Saturday that he has been vaccinated against Covid-19 caused a stir online, as Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas accused the yellow anthropomorphic bird of tweeting "government propaganda."

"I got the COVID-19 vaccine today! My wing is feeling a little sore, but it'll give my body an extra protective boost that keeps me and others healthy," Big Bird wrote on Twitter over the weekend. "Ms. @EricaRHill even said I've been getting vaccines since I was a little bird. I had no idea!"

The timing of the tweet was not coincidental: Children aged 5 to 11 are now eligible for the Pfizer vaccine. Big Bird, whose character is perpetually 6 years old, was clearly using social media to help inform kids about important public health information.

And that did not go over well with some Republicans. Ted Cruz whined that the iconic Sesame Street character was promoting "government propaganda." Some Fox News personalities pushed similar lines.

A Republican congressional candidate in Pennsylvania suggested the vaccine might kill Big Bird while a GOP state legislator in Arizona called the Muppet a "communist."

Right off the bat, it's worth emphasizing for context that Big Bird has spent decades helping inform families about public health campaigns, including vaccination efforts. These efforts haven't traditionally generated any partisan pushback — probably because political figures would've been embarrassed to complain publicly about a Sesame Street character promoting accurate, potentially lifesaving information.

What's more, let's pause to note just how weird 2021 has become with regards to Republicans and children's entertainment. It started with the GOP's fixation on Dr. Seuss, which was soon followed by complaints about Potato Head dolls and a Disney Plus disclaimer to some episodes of "The Muppet Show." Now, Big Bird is a new villain in some far-right circles.

I can only imagine how much better off we'd be if the GOP invested this much energy in actual governance.

But perhaps most important of all is the peek behind the rhetorical curtain. For many prominent Republican voices, there's an official line: They're not anti-vaccine, they're anti-mandates. There's no shortage of GOP officials at multiple levels of government that claim they're on board with Covid-19 vaccinations, just so long as they're entirely voluntarily and there are no consequences for those who refuse to do the right thing.

It's a deeply flawed argument, to be sure, but the pushback against Big Bird suggests it's not altogether sincere: The Sesame Street character simply helped get the word out about vaccines during a pandemic. For Republicans like Cruz, this was a step too far.