Them's Fightin' Words

MASON, Texas – - Letter from a non-swing state. Every political reporter and his hamster is covering the swing states. Here's the news from the rest of the country. This column is dedicated to all the Democrats in the red states and all the Republicans in the blue states, with affection for all.

In Mason, Texas, pop. 2,148, there are new yellow ribbons up all over town in memory of young Mathew Puckett, the first Mason man to die in military action since World War II. Though Masonites are united in sorrow, the debate over Iraq has only become more embittered. "Now they've killed one of ours. Now you have to support the troops," say the Republicans.

"Now don't you wonder, 'Should we be there?' Now don't you have to ask, 'What good are we doing?'" say the Democrats.

Local Democrats participated in the Mason County Round-Up parade this year. A few people waved at them from regular shoulder-height, but more waved from hip-level, just with their hands, not wanting to attract attention. It's not popular to be a Democrat in Mason County.

"If you say you're a Democrat, the first thing they say is, 'You're unpatriotic.' And the second thing they say is, 'You don't believe in God.' Try having a reasonable political discussion after that," said Gerry Gamel, editor of the Mason County News.

The difference this year, says A. J. Baker, is that Democrats are no longer saying, "'It's not worth having a fight over.' They're saying, 'We're not going to take this.'"

They're also saying: "I resent that. In fact, I resent the hell out of that." And Republicans in blue states are saying exactly the same thing over what they consider the Democrats' most offensive tactic, which is saying, usually implicitly but sometimes flat out, "Are you so dumb that you don't know..."

Republicans resent the hell out of that.

In Mason, the Democrats, like blue-state Republicans, sometimes have a hard time containing their exasperation. "They say: 'Kerry's against renewing the assault weapons ban. That means he's against guns,'" reported Baker in disgust. In Mason, where deer hunting is one of the economic mainstays, them's fightin' words. "No one hunts with an assault weapon," said Baker. Gamel observed, "People want to believe what they heard the first time, from Rush or whomever. People like to say, 'See there, I was right.'"

Many Democrats are now, "See there, we were right," these days on Iraq, leading them directly to the world's most annoying four words, "I told you so." Gamel, who returned to Mason after several years of living in Austin, finds there is "less room for discussion and less open-mindedness than there used to be." Part of the puzzle for local Democrats is that the county is 35 percent Hispanic, though not all are "legals."

"They're afraid to vote," said Frances Bode, who was wearing a "Yellow Dog Democrat" T-shirt. "They think if they don't vote right, they won't get work. It's a hangover from the old patron days." (The patron system, a notorious form of political exploitation, was common in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas until the 1980s. Your employment was connected to how you voted.)

Gamel, who had recently had an unpleasant run-in with a Republican woman, reported: "She said, 'I don't believe the 9-11 Commission report. I just don't believe it. Saddam Hussein was so helping Osama bin Laden.' I just about lost it right there. What can you do with someone like that? I'll certainly make concessions for reasonable arguments, but what do you say to someone who says, 'It's better to fight them over there than to fight them here?'"

Mason County Democrats think Mason is now more conservative because the younger people all move away – and unlike Llano, 35 miles down Highway 29 from Mason, they are not within commuting distance of Austin. It takes some imagination to see Llano, a somewhat larger burg, as a sink of sophistication. (It was at Cooper's Barbecue in Llano that I heard two cowboys discussing bin Laden just before the Iraq war started. They called him "Osama Bin," under the impression that he had two first names, like Jerry Jeff or Billy Bob. They agreed that before going into Iraq, it would be "smarter to git Osama Bin first," which I guess makes them Texas liberals.)

A plaintive caller from Utah said the other day: "Utah is not a swing state: What can we do?" A fair number of dedicated supporters of both parties use weekends to descend on the nearest swing states. Now the poor swingers – who are already inundated with nasty TV ads, computer-inspired phone calls, door hangars, campaign mail, e-mail, radio ads and call-in shows – are getting small armies of political Jehovah's Witnesses, as it were, at the door. This is not an easy election for anyone.

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