Belmont Club

We Have Ways of Making Men Vote

The phrase “we have ways of making men talk” comes from a 1935 movie entitled “The Lives of a Bengal Lancer”. It is uttered by the Oxford-educated Afghan leader, “Mohammed Khan”, as he prepares to thrust lighted bamboo slivers down the fingernails of 41st Lancer officers Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone, unless they reveal the route of a 2 million round caravan of ammunition through the hills.

But what may send shivers down the spines of incumbents is that political activists have found ways of “making men vote” — in the primaries, that is. Republican Rep. Spencer Bachus is finding his path to re-election challenged.

A new primary poll from Alabama’s 6th District shows Republican Rep. Spencer Bachus ahead in the first leg of his reelection race. But the poll also reveals the House Financial Services Committee chairman’s vulnerability to his banking industry connections and recent insider trading allegations.

Bachus leads his closest Republican challenger 63 percent to 17 percent, according to the survey conducted on behalf of the Campaign for Primary Accountability, an anti-incumbent super PAC. Yet a follow-up question suggests Bachus’s support is soft one month before Alabamans go to the polls.

Yes, it is handiwork of the shadowy Campaign for Primary responsibility again, one of whose leaders, Leo Linbeck III, comments on this blog. The strategy of challenging Washington incumbents in their home base is perfectly American, but it is also perfectly Afghan. Insurgents have long known that the place to exert pressure was far away from the capital, far from its encrusted defenses yet in a place to which a politician always had to return.

Political insurgents are no different. The Campaign from Primary Responsibility, as Tea Party Patriot co-founder Mark Meckler reminds us, “has a straightforward goal: influencing primaries in congressional districts that are safely Republican or Democratic. That’s the point at which disaffected voters can have the greatest impact on the election, he [Leo Linbeck III] said.” In other words, it is a means of reminding politicians by means of the electoral knock in the night that they work for the voters. They might be safe in Washington, but the long-neglected primary contests, which were for so long simply rubber stamps, have turned into ordeals.

USA Today says that “targeted lawmakers include Rep. Silvestre Reyes, an eight-term Democrat from El Paso; Rep. Jean Schmidt, a four-term Republican from suburban Cincinnati; and Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a 15-term Toledo Democrat whose district was redrawn by the Republican-controlled state Legislature to put her in a primary contest with Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland.” Silvestre Reyes was not amused.

“This is a clear example of how special interest money and family wealth is being used to undermine the vote and will of the people,” Reyes said. “This contributor is using the super PAC to help influence the outcome of this election.”

Chicago Business has reported that the Campaign for Primary Responsibility has reared its hydra head in Illinois, this time led by Joe Ricketts. “The Campaign for Primary Accountability, a Houston-based group with more than $1.6 million cash on hand, is targeting Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Chicago; Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Hinsdale, and Rep. Donald Manzullo, R-Rockford. Under federal law, super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money as long as they do not coordinate with the campaign they are trying to help.” Jesse Jackson Jr. is not amused either.

Mr. Jackson is facing former Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson, his first tough challenger since he was elected in a special election in 1995. He put out a fundraising email alert on Friday calling attention to what he described as a “Republican” super PAC that “is now actively seeking to influence and steal this election.” The group is targeting Republican incumbents in other states as well as Illinois.

But the fact that the movement is attacking incumbents from both parties will make it hard to characterize as partisan except perhaps, in the sense that is anti-Washington. Yet despite the Campaign for Primary Accountability’s recent successes, nobody expects it to overturn the Washington system on its own.  But it may play its small part.

And there is always a place for parts.

In “Lives of the Bengal Lancers” the characters played by Cooper and Tone amuse themselves by racing cockroaches in Mohammed Khan’s dungeon, enduring the itch of lice which they are powerless to scratch because of their damaged fingernails. All the while they are thinking of how to weaken Khan’s impregnable stronghold against the forlorn assault of the Lancers which will come, they know, because it must come.

The one doubting officer in the dungeon, who had broken under the torture asks why they would even consider the harebrained scheme which they were even then hatching, to blow up the fort’s magazine from within. Cooper stutters out that the reasons are ones that he does not know himself. Tone answers that is because he is a sucker for lost causes.

McGregor (Gary Cooper): And it’s like – and how can I tell you what it’s all about when I don’t know myself?

Forsythe (Tone): The time had come, the walrus said, for many things. Ships, shoes, and ceiling wax, and cabbages and kings.

McGregor: Oh, shut up!

Forsythe: You don’t like poetry?

McGregor: How should I know? I never read any.

Forsythe: Perhaps something more rugged:

Ever the faith endures
England, my England
Take, break us, we are yours
Life is good; joy runs high,
Between English earth and sky
Death is death, and we shall die
To the song on your bugles blown
To the stars on your bugles blown.

If I’d known I was going to say all this, I’d have brought my violin.

Many jaded political observes try to convince themselves that don’t care. And probably many of them don’t. But there’s always the possibility that some voters have decided to entertain themselves by racing incumbents against each other like cockroaches in a dungeon.

“Lives of the Bengal Lancers” received seven Academy Award nominations in 1935. But one can’t help but think that in fourteen years the Empire depicted in the story would be gone, though maybe that is not really true.  Service to an empire hides the fact that men are also in service to their private star of honor. It is empires that pass. The things men strive for remain.

Maybe the political incumbents should be worried, with the bugles are blowing in the distance and the fortress is assailed from within. Nothing lasts forever. Not even the incumbents.


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