By the time Rep. Nancy Pelosi took the podium, the Bruce Springsteen cover band had already packed up and gone home. The buffet tables had been cleared and the liquor bottles emptied.
The architects of Democratic victory, Rep. Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Chuck Schumer, had primed the hotel ballroom crowd of about 1,000. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid had hailed the "wind of change" that has brought Democratic control to the House and the edge of a majority to the Senate. The clock ticked past midnight. It was a new day.
"The campaign is over. Democrats are ready to lead. We are prepared to govern," announced Pelosi, the San Francisco liberal who will soon be speaker of the House of Representatives, the most powerful elected woman in the nation's history. As is her habit, she spoke in a careful, somewhat stilted manner, but it did not matter. She had won. The gray suit she wore had a tinge of purple that matched her necklace, a color-coded nod to the bipartisanship -- not red and not blue -- she was obligated by tradition to proclaim.
"The American people voted for a new direction to restore civility and bipartisanship in Washington," she said.
In a single election, all the Republican predictions of a generation of hegemony had been swept away. Just two years ago, Democrats doubted that they would take back the Congress before the end of the decade. Just six months ago, Democrats doubted that they would be able to take back the Congress in 2006. The reasons for this titanic shift are as clear to the pollsters as they are to the Democratic leaders on the stage. "What we are doing in Iraq isn't working and we definitely need to change course," explained Emanuel.
"We can do better in Iraq, where we will make 2007 a year of transition," announced Schumer.
The war had broken open the political structure. Now Pelosi, a mother of five, who represents San Francisco's Chinatown and Fisherman's Wharf, one of the nation's most liberal districts, is set to be the first female speaker of the House, and to take the third place in succession to George W. Bush, just two heartbeats away from the White House.
It will be left until tomorrow for the Democrats to join the debate over what Pelosi's leadership will mean, although cable news pundits had plenty to say Tuesday night. Republicans have been warning that a Speaker Pelosi would reward liberals and punish moderates -- Rep. Alcee Hastings ousting Jane Harman as House Intelligence Committee chair is a favorite scenario -- even though Pelosi said before the election that seniority would guide her leadership choices if she became speaker.
But Democrats were too busy enjoying the moment to publicly ponder any future strife. At one point, Terry McAuliffe, the former chairman of the Democratic Party, stepped out of the ballroom at the Capitol Hill Hyatt, where he had been swigging on an imported beer. "The biggest news tonight for '08 is that we won the governor of Ohio," he told a scrum of reporters in the press filing room. "I've always said we can't win the presidency without Ohio." With Ted Strickland as governor, McAuliffe continued, future Democratic presidential candidates will have a fundraiser and spokesman to mobilize voters, something that the party sorely lacked in 2004.
"The Bush presidency is over," McAuliffe said, wearing an American flag tie, his beer no longer in sight. "They gave us the keys to the car, reluctantly. Now we have got to deliver. If we do that, it helps for '08."
After Pelosi had finished speaking, confetti guns fired red, white and blue paper into the air. Emanuel brought out his children, and the Democratic leaders joined hands, raising them in victory. The ballroom disc jockey played U2's "Beautiful Day," an uplifting song about winning love.
"I know I'm not a hopeless case," U2's front man, Bono, sings on the track. For the first time in six years, Democrats in Washington could sing along those words, without any doubt that they were right on target.