When Bubba Meets Obama
If you want to fish for votes in Appalachia, here's how.
Jun 30, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 40 • By MATT LABASH
I hadn't seen Mudcat in his natural habitat since I profiled him for this magazine three years ago. His proud mug adorned our cover with the headline "Hunting Bubba," as he held up the head of a freshly killed 12-point buck in the back of his truckbed. It was a memorable trip. The reformed alcoholic fed me moonshine out of his freezer, gave me turkey beards to take home to my kids, and nearly killed us on a white-knuckle spin in his SUV on an outlaw track (all four of his tires ended up needing to be replaced).
Since the original story, Mudcat and I have become friends. I've watched the silver-tongued 59-year-old nearly pick up half a college women's volleyball team at a cab stand in Vegas. I've heard him croak out bluegrass tunes at a jam session in the Nashville living room of banjo player Rob McCoury, of the legendary Del McCoury Band. I am a regular recipient of phone calls that start with the greeting, "Listen to this, Brotha," as he's already spinning a tune, like Dr. Ralph Stanley's "Angel Band," a version of which he recorded for Mudcat's dying mother, Miss Aggie. And I have served as sounding board for Mudcat's upcoming book, a spiritual treatise that will be so "reverent to The Power" that it will have next to no rude words after those in the title, The Half-Assed Christian's Guide to Living.
Still, Mudcat and I had all but stopped talking politics in the interest of maintaining civility, on account of his last campaign. Working tirelessly for John Edwards, Mudcat seemed convinced that the senator was on a par with Jesus Christ (with the slight edge going to Edwards, since Christ only had the Beatitudes, not a 12-point Rural Recovery Plan), whereas I could never shake the impression Edwards was selling me a used car, and not a very good one--maybe a Ford Festiva with the odometer rolled back.
But with Edwards long gone--and the rural vote coming into sharp relief, as Hillary picked up the slack--we'd reopened a constructive dialogue. While still insisting that Edwards would've matched up better against McCain than anyone, Mudcat admits Edwards was always a "dead man walking," who didn't have a shot in a three-way primary against "two historical bookends."
Mudcat lives in a converted migrant-worker's shack at the foot of Bent Mountain with burbling Back Creek running through his front yard. I unload my gear into his seven-year-old daughter Abby's room (she lives with her mother, nearby). The house is all mounted antlers and furry pelts and other things that would send Ingrid Newkirk straight to her therapist. Even his daughter's room, apart from the pink "Princess" chair and Mickey Mouse statuary, is a reminder of animal holocaust, with an American Hunter magazine on the nightstand. (A friend Abby brought home, marveling at all the mounted buck-heads, once asked Abby if her daddy had killed all those. The response: "Yes, all except that. I killed that one.")
Over the several days I stay with him, I settle into Mudcat time. A former sportswriter who has made a considerable amount of money in real estate development (politics has been a late-life hobbyhorse), Mudcat keeps the hours of a retiree, though he says, "It's hard to retire if you've never had a job." He awakens mid-to-late morning, flips on a recorded women's fast-pitch softball game (he will fight you if you disparage his beloved Hokies of Virginia Tech), and sits at his living room table in his Hula-girl boxers and a Colbert Report hat. Here, he consumes his breakfast of champions: a string of unfiltered Camels and a couple of Red Bulls, which give him the stamina he needs to hold forth on politics half the day, then fish until dark.
The living-room symposia are not conducted in the dulcet tones of a public-radio broadcast. They are nicotine-laced and profanity-spiked. Mudcat swears like he's being paid by the four-letter word. "I feel s--y about it," he says. But as he once told a woman who stood up after a speech he gave to a Democratic audience to say he made compelling points, but they'd be more effective without the swearing, "Lady, there's nothing I can do about it. Because if you'd seen what I've seen from elitist Democrats, you'd swear too."
He's speaking of the breed of mostly Northeastern elitist liberal that he encounters even on his own campaigns: condescending, green around the gills from consuming too much arugula, with overdeveloped thumbs from clacking nonstop on their Blackberries, all of whom jealously guard their titles such as "deputy campaign manager of the coffee pot." He calls them "the Harvards" (a term pinched from LBJ), though in fairness he stipulates that "there's a lot of jerks that went to other places too."
While Mudcat gets summoned by the likes of Senate majority leader Harry Reid to tell the Democratic caucus what they need to do to bring rural Reagan-Democrat types back into the fold, he says it's an eternal struggle on the ground, among the permanent class of campaign professionals. They're addicted to their "thread the needle strategy" of depending on liberal urban bulwarks and enough fickle new young voters' being registered to win elections.
That strategy has helped Dems drop the last two presidentials, and could've lost them more if Bill Clinton hadn't been in three-way races. And many more elections stand to be dropped, Mudcat says. Some estimates say the South, for instance, which some Democrats wish to write off altogether, will be home to 40 percent of the electorate within the next few cycles. What kind of blinkered pinhead would want to spot Republicans 40 percent of the electorate?
Mudcat, who describes himself as "an old-timey Democrat: pro-gun, pro-God, pro fiscal conservatism," is tired of teaching remedial Mudcat Math to deaf ears in his own party. It can be distilled as The Twofer Strategy: If you get a rural white voter who otherwise would have voted for McCain to switch to Obama, his vote is worth twice as much as a vote from your standard "liberal pinko commie" or your MTV Rock-the-Voter, since Obama not only accrues one vote for himself, but also takes one away from McCain. Campaigns that court the base while ignoring voters who could be won over are "hunting squirrels they've already killed."
Mudcat is not, therefore, a defensive tactician. As a student of history and uphill fights (he's perhaps the only Democratic consultant alive who sleeps under a Confederate flag bedspread, though he'd never fly the Stars'n'Bars outside, as he's merely celebrating "the benign parts of my culture" and wouldn't want to "disrupt my black friends' peace of mind"), he cites Stonewall Jackson, who
Mudcat doesn't detect much appetite for offense among Democrats (though he lauds DNC chair Howard Dean's "50 State Strategy"). There's a defeatist attitude among his party's elites about getting Dems elected in Bubbaland, which is preposterous says Mudcat--just ask West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller and Robert Byrd, the two perennially reelected Democratic senators from what is commonly ridiculed as the most backward state in the country. "No matter how much you sit and talk to these f--ers, they don't understand twofers. It's the goddamndest thing I've ever seen in my life. I go absolutely nuts. Cause they don't think they can do it."
Part of the reason they don't think they can do it, Mudcat says, is they regard Appalachian/bubba voters with condescension. Mudcat blanches at Dems' constantly moaning about such people voting against their economic self-interest by voting for Republicans. While there's something to it, he says, these shopworn class-warfare tropes have proven that they don't work.
Citing Mike Murphy, Republican consultant and sometime WEEKLY STANDARD contributor, Mudcat calls him
Just to illustrate the sort of cultural shorthand by which Dems hand Republicans the truncheon to club them with, he pursues the issue of guns. While nobody's going to take anyone's gun away in a country of 90 million gun owners, he says,
Why make our members vote for bulls-- bills that'll get 'em beat in November? It's all perception--nothing's going to pass. Yet the deal is, Democrats are perceived as anti-gun. And so with a slogan like "Close the gun show loophole," what are the first four words of that? "Close the gun show." Bubba doesn't mind an instant check, but closing the gun show is all he can hear. He doesn't need to hear "loophole," after he's heard the first four words.
As for Barack Obama, Mudcat says, he's got problems in these parts, but not the kind all these out-of-towners think. The Jeremiah Wright scandal? "It's a zero," he says. "Everybody who's gone to church has heard their preacher say crazy things. Listen, I'm probably going to hell. But if I was held accountable for the crazy s-- I've heard Baptist preachers say over the years, I'd go straight to the pits of hellfire. I wouldn't even get an accounting."
Mudcat certainly wasn't pleased with Obama's infamous comments at his San Francisco fundraiser about Pennsylvania voters in depressed rural communities: "So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." Mudcat and his friends take their guns and God straight, and don't require any chaser of frustration.
But even if Obama's comments lend themselves to Republican attack ads, Mudcat insists he isn't permanently doomed among Appalachian voters. "Listen," says Mudcat, exhaling a fog of Camel smoke, "when Bubba thinks of elitists, he thinks of white guys from Boston like John Kerry. He don't think of a brother. When we think of black guys, we think of oppression." This is confirmed for me anecdotally one day over lunch with one of Mudcat's Republican fishing buddies (they used to gamble $100 a fish). His friend dislikes Obama, but at the elitist charge, he shrugs. "Being an elitist doesn't bother me that much. I know a lot of elitists. When it comes to turkey hunting, Mudcat's an elitist. When it comes to trout fishing, I'm the elitist, cause I can kick his ass."
Mudcat doesn't deny that Obama's race could be a factor. Since Obama doesn't come around Appalachia much, having taken a powder in places like West Virginia and Kentucky, "nobody knows about Obama out here. All we know is that he's black. That's all we know. That's all anyone wants to tell us. The damndest thing I've ever seen. So Hillary defined the debate out here, which boiled down to that she's anti-trade and pro-gun."
Mudcat's eyes grow wild when he says this, as if it's the most preposterous thing he's ever heard. Turns out, it is. "Hillary Clinton a populist?!!! I mean she threw her goddamn rural kickoff at Monsanto's lobbying office on K Street, for chrissakes!" Still, he pays her grudging respect, since cynically pretending you're on the right side beats an open-arms embrace of the wrong one. "I can live with it," he says. But while analysis of why Obama won so few votes in poorer Appalachian counties (where Hillary picked up 71 percent) has focused on race, Mudcat says race is no more a factor here than anywhere else. And there's some evidence to back him.
The website Daily Yonder, news outlet of Kentucky's Center for Rural Strategies, has done the best analysis of the rural vote this cycle, and it reports that in exit polls, only 20 percent of voters in West Virginia said race was an "important" factor in their decision--overwhelmingly, to vote for Clinton. That's comparable to the 20 percent of voters in New York who said the same thing. But in Obama's home state of Illinois, 23 percent of the electorate said race was important in their decision--and 73 percent of them voted for Obama.
If anyone holds that a black guy can't win in these parts, says Mudcat, then they ought to notify former Virginia governor Doug Wilder, a black guy who won 20 years ago. Wilder, of course, knew how to speak the language and get through to even the most resistant parts of the culture. Mudcat, who volunteered for Wilder's campaign back then, tells a tale, related by a friend who was the candidate's body man as he campaigned in the far corner of southwest Virginia:
Obama, says Mudcat, is a better campaigner than Wilder, "has as gifted a mouth as I've ever heard on anybody, and the guy's IQ is maybe 50 points higher than mine." His problem out here, insists Mudcat, isn't his blackness, but that he ceded too much ground and didn't aggressively go after the vote, as Hillary did, communicating lack of interest. "My take on it is very simple. Who you gonna vote for if you live in Kentucky and the candidate takes off for Oregon? You read in all the local papers that Obama ain't comin' out here and getting your vote, cause he don't think he can win it. Are you gonna vote for the sonofabitch? Hell no!"
You don't have to be of the culture to punch through it (see Hillary), you just have to give it its due, says Mudcat. He puts down a cigarette to let out his feral cat, Kitty, who kills everything from geese to groundhogs, sometimes bringing them back and leaving gutpiles on the porch. "She kills something every day," Mudcat explains. "Go out and kill, Kitty. Bring us something back."
Mudcat grows excited and prescriptive, eager to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. He says he wants me to see something, and walks over to his record stash and opens up the box set of Mac Weisman, the bluegrass singer known as "The Voice with a Heart." This is where Mudcat keeps "my important papers, so I know where to find them." While he's looking through the box, he tells me that rather than writing off Appalachia, as so many think he needs to do, Obama should embrace it. Where others see disadvantage, Mudcat sees opportunity.
What Obama needs to do, says Mudcat, is get on the ground regularly in Appalachia and give a version of the following:
Mudcat finds what he's looking for and hands me a 2004 Wall Street Journal piece by Jim Webb. Unlike many in his party, fretting that Webb is an ideological outlier who would bring ruin to the ticket, Mudcat thinks Webb ought to bypass vice president so we could "just go ahead and elect him king. . . . He'll bring in some Reagan Democrats, and all those are twofers. Pick up 13 electoral votes in Virginia--big step, Son."
Mudcat offers the piece as a sort of manifesto for what he's calling "The Webb Coalition." There isn't much meat on the bones as yet, but in the piece, Webb sets out to diagnose the problem of Democrats' reaching the "Scots-Irish, along with those others who make up the 'Jacksonian' political culture that has migrated toward the values of this ethnic group." Their issues include intense patriotism and strong opposition to gun control, which "probably cost Mr. Gore both his home state of Tennessee and traditionally Democratic West Virginia in 2000."
It's a culture, Webb wrote, "that is so adamantly individualistic that it will never overtly form into one of the many interest groups that dominate Democratic party politics." While the GOP has sought to keep peace with this culture, favoring "guns, God, flag, opposition to abortion, and success in war," Democrats have "consistently alienated this group, to their detriment," partly because of "their shift toward minorities as the foundation of their national electoral strategy."
Mudcat highlights what for him is the money paragraph, the last few sentences, which read,
The thinking goes that the poor whites of Appalachia and inner-city blacks are "spiders on a mirror," in Mudcat's words. Though they couldn't be more divorced culturally, they have many of the same problems, from crumbling infrastructure to poor schools to the need to leave home to find jobs. Obama should set about wedding the two by visiting here and sending active surrogates, says Mudcat, adding that he'd need "good rural surrogates, right-thinking people--people who have faith. If they don't have faith, I don't f--in' want 'em. Faith in the power that can pull us all together."
In both communities, he needs to put forth agendas that highlight their shared afflictions. This is a way of laying the trackwork for a lasting coalition beyond this election between two largely forgotten tribes who've regarded each other with suspicion if they've regarded each other at all. But it also gives Obama, the community organizer from Chicago, a way to demystify himself. Among blacks, of course, this is unnecessary. But among rural whites in Appalachia, he needs a genuine point of entry, a way to find commonality, express empathy, and connect with the culture without shooting a duck or looking like some goofball trying to choke down shots of Canadian whiskey.
While this has been thought of before (Jesse Jackson took a stab at it, with little success), Mudcat says it'll only work with the right national leader. "Is Obama that leader? I don't know." I call Webb's office to fill in the picture a bit, but Webb declines to elaborate. "Webb's comfortable (he thinks!) with Mudcat being his spokesperson on this," an aide tells me, proving perhaps that Webb is even braver than suggested by his status as one of the Vietnam war's most decorated veterans.
I decide to fly Mudcat's Webb Coalition idea by some skeptics. One afternoon at lunch, we are joined by his Republican friend and committed McCain voter Tommy Anderton, who calls himself "Mudcat's haberdasher." Tommy owns the downtown Roanoke store--featuring an oversized Rush Limbaugh banner on its wall--where Mudcat buys all his Carhartt shirts and pants. Sipping our iced teas, with Tommy in seersucker slacks and a navy blazer, Mudcat goes to work on him.
What would happen, he asks Tommy, if Obama sat down before ten white Appalachian males and properly explained the problems their communities share, paying respect to the culture, talking of building coalitions and floating similar policies to transform rural and urban America? Says Tommy, "And what magic drug are you going to give Obama to make him say that?"
Mudcat tells Tommy to put that aside and asks if he thinks Obama could turn two of the ten. "No," says Tommy. "Could he turn one of them?" asks Mudcat. "Yes," says Tommy.
"If he turns one of them," says Mudcat, satisfied, "he wins the election." It's Mudcat Math: Turn one out of ten Appalachian male voters into an Obama supporter, and you've not only added 10 percent of the white male vote to the Democratic column but slashed the Republicans' share of it by 10 percent. "It's all about twofers, Brotha." Mudcat admits it probably won't happen, but asks, What if it did? "Y'know Mudcat," says Tommy, "If. If the Pilgrims would've shot a cat, what would we be eating for Thanksgiving?"
When I run it by Republican strategists, I get a range of reactions, everything from, Why not, there's nothing to lose since Democrats have no other strategy besides registering new voters and appealing to their traditional base, to: "Boy, Mudcat's selling a pile of s--. Obama can't win those voters because of race." I cite Doug Wilder's win of 20 years ago. "Yeah," says the consultant, "but he was a nonthreatening African American." I respond that aside from his Muslim-sounding name, which even Mudcat admits could give him problems in the area, most wouldn't characterize Obama as "threatening."
"Oh yeah?" says the consultant. "Wait till you see him Photoshopped in a dashiki."
Not everyone, however, is so cynical. Dee Davis, who heads the Center for Rural Strategies, says winning Appalachia isn't even so much about the issues. "Who votes on issues? Please. People vote on iconography, what club they want to be in." Davis agrees with Mudcat that you don't have to be of the culture to grab it. Look at the Kennedys, he said, Jack making serious inroads during his presidential run, Bobby taking his 1968 Poverty Tour to places often unvisited by politicians. On the surface, those two couldn't have been more foreign to the culture of Appalachia.
Yet Davis, who used to deliver furniture for his family's business in rural Kentucky, says,
You'd go into people's houses and see John and Bobby Kennedy on the wall right next to the praying hands. Bobby wasn't the good 'ol boy, but when he showed up, he showed up. He was willing to listen and be changed by the experience. He didn't have to put on hunting gear and swap knives. He'd go into your kitchen and have a cup of coffee. He came in here with an open mind, and learned, and then went back and did something. John Kennedy won West Virginia. I have some in-laws who to this day refuse to watch the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving because "that's where they killed my president."
Davis says of current Democratic strategy,
They can say we're never going to win, so why do it? The truth is, if you look in the rural areas of battleground states, it's pretty determinative of who wins elections. Look at Ohio last time. Right now, you hear Dems say they are going to change the map, but they seem to be counting Colorado three times. To pull out of rural Appalachia at this point would be a tactical mistake because people are really hurting, and when they are, they don't tend to return the party in power.
If Obama doesn't start becoming more of a regular in the region, Davis says, he's punting a major opportunity.
Back at the house, Mudcat's in a full lather. "C'mon," he commands, taking me up to his office, which is little more than a desk and a graveyard of old computers, mounted buck heads, and his 20 or so sets of Trebark camo hunting gear. He sits down at his wheezing, virus-infected computer. It spits mile-a-minute porn pop-ups and offers for Mudcat to increase his breast size. "Goddamnit," he shouts, convincingly outraged. "I hit every piece of bait the devil ever threw at me except for pornography. I always figured that if you wanted to see a naked woman, go find you one."
Between the pop-ups, Mudcat furiously logs on to election websites, where he spends hours. He shows me choice tidbits, like historic results from Virginia's most Appalachian congressional district, the ninth (known as the Fighting Ninth "because you gotta fight for it," he says), where outcomes constantly seesaw back and forth between Republicans and Democrats. These are not, he maintains, committed Red State voters. Lesson: "They're fickle, Brotha. Go get 'em." To many politicians, rural Appalachian voters are the homeliest girls at the dance. But homely girls like to dance too, they just want to be asked.
As he plays with an Electoral College map, he repeatedly demonstrates how, if Obama doesn't start picking off the Appalachian belt, he's going to have to swing lots more states than Kerry did in 2004. I'm intrigued. Still, all this work is getting in the way of our true business: fishing.
We hit the streams with a gaggle of Mudcat's gregarious and generous friends, half of whom are named "Charlie." Many of them are wealthy, but they are committed gentlemen of leisure, dedicated to the art of angling to the point that some have bought their own trout hatchery on their private limestone stream. On one outing, we hit a fishing spot so choice I'd never be invited back if I published its name. I wade into a hole that Mudcat has already worked over for four or so rainbow trout.
Generally speaking, I regard my fly rod as a crack addict regards his crack pipe. It's something I turn to with great regularity. (I caught 1,569 fish on it last year. I kept count.) So I don't typically spook when fishing in front of an audience. But as Mudcat's pals decide to take a creek-side seat, watching me fish as they cut into the beer and bourbon, I start hearing the fishing equivalent of footsteps, with all these mountain boys watching my every move.
One of the Charlies compliments me on throwing a tight loop. But that's about the last of the praise. They start barking sideline instructions. "Cast into the seam. . . . You gotta mend line . . . too much drag." I have one eye on the water, the other on the boys, when my strike indicator bobs a few times, but I'm too slow on the trigger and miss a few fish. "Ohhhhh," they yell in unison each time.
As I keep fishing and am getting skunked, I notice one of the boys sneaking upstream. Shortly thereafter, I hear scattered kerplunks and think the wiseacre is throwing rocks, scaring down prospective fish. But a minute or so later, trout start rising like bombs going off around my waders, which inspires a new round of catcalls. "Yep, no fish in there. . . . It's a dry hole." It turns out the prankster had stashed trout pellets in his beer bottle, and had thrown them in a riffle, which had washed down into my hole. A while later, I take a leaping rainbow trout and a nice-sized brookie on a bead-head zug bug, barely saving my dignity, though one of the Charlies seems cross that I horsed the latter in.
By the next day, I'm again ready to hook into some of their trout. But Mudcat has other ideas. Being a fan of lost causes, he's attracted to one of my own: catching catfish on a fly. Catfish are typically uninterested in artificials, preferring smellier natural baits, so it is extremely uncommon to pursue them on a fly rod. If you mention this quest to other fly fishermen, they grimace--it just isn't done. And why would anyone want to? Catfish are slimy, ugly, and can stick you with their sharp dorsal and pectoral fins. Yet when you catch one, they are strong, tenacious fighters, providing much more pullage than trout or bass of comparable size. Part of the thrill of catching them on a fly is that you're not supposed to.
I have caught eight or ten myself this way, but have been unable to systematically replicate results. So Mudcat proffers: "Screw trout, we're gonna catch you some catfish--on a fly!" He has some ideas. He takes me to a large pond behind the house of his business partner, Richard Wells, who owns a local publishing empire. His Roanoker magazine just christened Mudcat "The Most Memorable Roanoker of 2007" (though Wells assures me it was a write-in contest and he didn't fix the vote).
Mudcat asks to take a look at my flies, and settles on a brown woolly bugger, of which he cuts off the tail, to make it look more cylindrical. He tells me to go to it, which I do, sight-casting to large grass carp and channel catfish, their shadows darting through the water. Next, Mudcat starts adding "the secret ingredient"--cylindrical fish pellets--which he throws in by the handful, as he sits with a Camel dangling from his mouth in a lawn chair on a dock, about 50 feet in front of me from the shore.
With the setting sun in my eyes and a glare on the water, I can't quite make out what the fish are doing, though I see plenty of action on top, with fish trying to vacuum up pellets before they sink. Mudcat barks counterintuitive instruction. "Don't retrieve, let her drop, give it time, they'll get it." Sure enough, they do. I first take a six pounder. Moments later, an eight pounder is on my line, which is so feisty--trying to run me under the dock, stopping, then bulldogging me down again--that it takes nearly ten minutes to land it, since I don't want to snap it off on my light tippet.
It's not a bad outing. In 15 minutes or so, Mudcat helped me replicate about one-fifth of my lifetime catfish take on a fly. Of course, he cheated by throwing pellets. But Mudcat is always willing to think outside the lines, sometimes throwing live hellgrammites off a fly rod. Whatever catches fish.
Being a magazine writer by trade, obligated to graft metaphors onto even the most recalcitrant subject matter, I ask Mudcat what we've learned.
"About catching catfish on a fly?" he asks.
"About catching rural Appalachian voters."
"Oh Jay-zuuuusss," he says, wincing, realizing I'm trying to inflict order on his universe, thus justifying our fishing trip to my editors.
I give him a head start: Catfish aren't highly regarded, I tell him, yet they are cagey and smart. They can sample bait by smell without ever mouthing it, making them more resistant to artificial lures than are more prized game fish. I barely have to prompt him. Mudcat revels in the unorthodox. In Ontario, he once took a 25-pound king salmon with a rock as it was headed for a fish ladder where, at the top, it was going to get clubbed with a bat and stripped of its roe. ("I'd never seen one before, so I'm gonna get it, even if I don't have a rod," he explains.)
Catfish, he tells me, warming to his assignment, are a lot like white rural voters: "They gotta feed on the bottom--cause all they get is scraps. But if you're their pal, and you feed 'em what they want--and you gotta feed 'em, you can't goddamn pull it away, you gotta let 'em eat it. . . . If you present enough food out there, you're gonna get 'em in a frenzy, just like those catfish in the pond. And when you hook 'em? They'll take you on a ride."
Matt Labash is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.