By Kirsten Adshead and Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org
If nothing else, it was real.
Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan presented Americans with a debate that was more human, more vital, more direct than Mitt Romney’s methodical beating last week of a strangely lethargic President Barack Obama.
But it was more than that. In the only one-on-one confrontation of the two vice presidential candidates, Ryan and Biden disagreed sharply — never mind Biden’s vestigial habit of referring to Ryan as “my friend” — on issues of foreign policy, health care, the federal budget, and taxes.
Early on, Ryan blasted the president’s handling of the economy — “This is not what a recovery looks like.” — and the Obama campaign’s insistence on higher taxes for wealthy Americans.
“There aren’t enough rich people and small businesses for them to tax to pay for all their spending,” Ryan said.
Biden pointed out that, despite his disdain for the president’s stimulus plan, Ryan appealed directly to Biden for money for Wisconsin companies.
“I just wish he would be a little more candid,” Biden said.
While the networks turned their cameras and microphones to the spin and pan alley — where party loyalists offered predictable, scripted responses to the debate — Watchdog.org sent its reporters into the places where real people watched real politicians discuss real ideas — i.e., drinkeries, saloons, roadhouses, gin mills, taprooms, taverns.
From Paul Ryan’s hometown, challenges
In Janesville, Wisc., on Thursday night, Joe Biden, it seemed, was the least of Paul Ryan’s competition.
At Russ’ Park Place Pub, the Pittsburgh Steelers-Tennessee Titans shoot-out got more attention than the vice-presidential debate featuring their hometown celebrity one TV screen over.
Next door at Stokes Pub, they didn’t bother to put the debate on.
A mile down the road, at O’Riley and Conway’s Irish Pub, a handful of patrons would have watched the debate, but the closed captioning wouldn’t work.
So, without complaint, they shifted attention to the live performance of Downtown Danny Brown, an Irish band performing, among other things, R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.”
Nielsen ratings might not have spiked Thursday, even in Janesville, during the year’s first, and only, vice-presidential debate.
But O’Riley chef Chad Measner has been around long enough to know that Janesville residents were pumped about seeing their own congressman in the national spotlight.
“Whatever your politics are, I can’t see how you couldn’t be excited about someone from our town, being on this stage, possibly about to be elected vice president of the United States,” Measner said. “It speaks a lot for him and what’s going on and this city, you know, to bring someone like that up.”
Measner sat in the Ryan family booth, across from the Ryan family crest, where he’s sat and talked with the Ryan family more times than he could count.
Now, thinking that a man he’s known most of his life could be the next vice president, he said, “It’s really cool. I got goose bumps when you said it.”
Janesville resident Chris Green is less impressed with Ryan’s status.
Green, 40, watched the debate more out of happenstance than intent. It was on the TV when he sat down at O’Riley’s.
Green said he is well-versed on everything from the Patriot Act to attempts to audit the Federal Reserve, and he’s come to one conclusion.
Gesturing toward the Biden-Ryan debate, he said, “Neither of these guys is going to fix it.”
Green said he believes the thrill of having a local-boy-made-good on the Republican ticket will be enough for some area residents to vote for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Ryan next month.
But he said he’s hoping people will research instead and come to the same conclusion he’s reached: It’s time to give third parties a shot.
From Newark, Del., a split in opinion
With his hand wrapped around a cold Bud Light, Jim McGurk said, given the chance, he’d buy Delaware’s most famous politician one of the same.
After all, the Vice President Joe Biden is a man it seems like you’d want to have a beer with, he said.
“He’s definitely a guy you can relate to,” said McGurk, a college student who lives in Wilmington, Del. “Biden’s one of us, he comes from the same kind of families as we do.”
Most of the three dozen or so people who gathered at Catherine Rooney’s Irish Pub in this college town in the northwest corner of Delaware — the state Biden has called home for more than four decades – seemed to agree.
Amanda Shields said she saw him in her local grocery store one time, several years ago.
“He’s not just some guy on TV, we see him around,” said Shields, a 27-year old museum curator from Wilmington.
And they’re proud of it. Most of the attendees at the party organized by the campaign of U.S. Rep. John Carney, D-Del., were sporting buttons with Biden’s image and “Delaware’s own” emblazoned across the front.
Notably, President Barack Obama signs and buttons were few.
Biden grew up in Scranton, Penn., and has lived most of his life in Wilmington, the largest city in Delaware. Now, he is a wealthy lawyer and longtime politician who owns a $600,000 home surrounded by rolling hills to the north of Wilmington.
But he has used those working-class roots – and tales of his Amtrak rides to Washington, D.C., during his 36 years in the U.S. Senate – to successfully convey the image of an “every man” in touch with the concerns and needs of the middle class.
That can be a real asset in an election between two presidential candidates who sometimes appear detached from the public – either the result of awkward public gaffes or dozens of fundraisers with Hollywood elites and Wall Street bankers.
“I don’t say anything I don’t mean,” Biden quipped on Thursday night after Ryan teased him about the times when his words might not come out exactly as planned.
But that’s just “Biden being Biden,” said Shields. “Some people like it, some people don’t.”
Though perhaps most well-known for his public gaffes, Biden is a seasoned politician and brought his best game to the debate on Thursday night.
The crowd was impressed – particularly after a lackluster performance from Obama last week.
“I think it went really well for Joe,” said Geoff Heath, a 20-year old student at the University of Delaware. “He had a lot of energy that Obama lacked in the first debate.”
Ann Marvin, a retiree from Hockessin, Del., was among the minority who were not so impressed. She said the debate was a “draw” between the two vice presidential hopefuls and wanted to hear a more substantive discussion of issues.
Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney debate again on Tuesday.
Kirsten Adshead, reporting from Janesville, Wisc., and Eric Boehm, reporting from Newark, Dela.