Let’s say you’re out walking and you see a scooter parked on the street get creamed by a van. And then, let’s say the van drives off. What would you do? To be clear, it’s not your scooter. And the scooter’s actually parked illegally. And it’s raining – not cats and dogs … but you’ve got your dog on a leash along for the walk. What would you do?
Or let’s say walking at 8:30 p.m. in downtown Ann Arbor, a young (and in your estimation, scruffy-looking, down-on-their-luck) couple who are seeking shelter from the rain under the Clover Leaf awning asks you, “Do you have a cell phone?” What would you do?
Or let’s say you hear, then see, a cello player in Nickels Arcade as you’re walking south on State Street and note that there’s no one around listening. You like listening to street musicians, but just to be clear, you’ve got somewhere to be: a group VP debate-watching event with the UM College Democrats. What would you do?
What do you think Joe Biden would do? How about Sarah Palin?
We’ll get back to the scooter and the phone call, but those are the kinds of situations that might reveal more about these candidates for vice president than any set of responses they might give to debate prompts. Still, we must content ourselves with sound bites given at rope lines, stump speeches, and debate prompt responses.
Gathered to watch the responses of Biden and Palin on TV during their debate last night were around 130 students at an event organized by the UM College Democrats. When I walked into the University Club at the Michigan Union, there was something going on, but not what I expected. With half an hour to go before the debate start, I suppose what I expected to see was a bunch of sweat-shirted young people grouped in flirty conversational pods, eating popcorn, wearing backpacks stuffed with intro to psych textbooks, ready to heap derision by the shovelful onto Sarah Palin. That is, I expected a scene more uniformly consistent with the one T-shirt slogan I observed: “Whoever heard of a nice piece of elephant?”
Instead of larger conversational pods, most people were off by themselves talking on their phone. Nearly everyone had a sheet of paper that seemed to be a handout of some kind. I wanted a handout, too. Whoops – no, I didn’t. They were call sheets. All those individual phone conversations were outgoing calls to a targeted set of voters.
I tracked down Nathanial Styer, chair of the executive board for the College Democrats, who gave me some insight into the phone task. The call sheets were freshly generated that day by the Obama campaign and were geographically targeted to the 7th Congressional District – voters who had not been contacted yet by the campaign of Mark Schauer, who’s running for the U.S. House of Representatives. Styer explained that callers had been briefed for 20 minutes on various talking points by subject-area experts before the sheets had been distributed. Callers were surveying voters about their preference in both the presidential race and the 7th Congressional District, plus making a single request: watch the debate.
As the group watched the debate, there was applause and laughter at many predictable places. Palin’s vernacular phrasings (“we’re gonna fix it,” “doncha believe that,” “somebody hollers out a question”) consistently drew giggles of amusement throughout. Occasionally, but not often, people in the audience hollered out opinions. “That was terrible!” came in response to Palin’s declaration that her position on same-sex marriage was no different from Biden’s: “My answer is the same as his and I do not [support same-sex marriage].”
Displayed on split screen with Palin, it drew consistent laughter whenever Biden displayed a toothy smile. It’s not clear to me how to analyze that. The biggest applause line for Biden of the night came when he wrapped up his depiction of McCain’s health plan (which Biden said amounted to giving taxpayers $5,000 to replace a $12,000 policy) with the kick-out: “That is the ultimate bridge to nowhere.”
Another strong applause line for Biden was at the conclusion of his remarks about his personal tragedy and how he understood what it’s like to raise kids as a single parent. Biden had choked up briefly talking about not knowing if his child was going to make it, before continuing. As Biden paused to gather himself, there was an audible murmur through the audience. The concluding applause led me to parsed it as a perfectly sincere, “Awww.”
Leaving the debate-watching venue, returning through the still-falling rain, I regretted not stopping earlier to enjoy the cello player in Nickels Arcade. He or she was now gone. Biden and Palin are pretty busy people. They probably wouldn’t have stopped, either.
The young couple who asked for my phone, they were gone, too. But I assume that story had a happy end. The woman first called her mother to authorize cab fare (which she did after confirming with the male companion that yes, it was in fact raining), then the cab company. I’d like to think Sarah Palin probably would have lent the young woman her phone, and would have authorized cab fare for her daughter, too.
The smashed scooter was gone as well. That story will probably have a halfway happy ending, too. Matt Bradish, who owns Underground Sounds, was the guy earlier who was out in the rain walking his dog. He saw the incident, recorded the van’s license number, peeked into Old Town Tavern and asked Liz, a server there, to check if someone inside had parked a scooter outside, and then phoned in a police report. Eventually the scooter’s owner was located (though not at the Old Town). Don’t know if Joe Biden owns a dog, but I’d hope that he’d phone in a police report, too.