What now?

Paglia, Keillor, Conason, Pollitt, Smiley and more! Reactions to the elections, and what we should take from them.


Salon Staff
November 8, 2006 10:22PM (UTC)

Camille Paglia is a bestselling author and the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Democrats scored big in my neck of the woods. Statewide in Pennsylvania, we brought down Senator Rick Santorum -- though not all of us are thrilled with his oddly effete and often maddeningly vague replacement, Bob Casey, Jr. And in my suburban Philadelphia district, Representative Curt Weldon has been evicted from his longtime berth by a recent, untested import from Virginia, former Admiral Joseph Sestak.

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The arch-conservative Santorum, based in Pittsburgh on the western end of the state, was ironically better known to the national electorate than to many of us in southeastern Pennsylvania. Arlen Specter has been our omnipresent senator here -- his monotonous, lugubrious voice unfailingly turning up on early-morning radio sports shows to comment on the prior day's performance by the Philadelphia Eagles. (I instantly turn the dial.) Hence we mainly knew Santorum through his televised speeches on the Senate floor -- where his humorless, hammering, moralistic attitudinizing (blatantly tailored to position him for a presidential run) was often repellent. He gave me the willies -- as if he were a reincarnation of the fulminating Puritan ministers who were always calling for the closure of the theaters in Shakespeare's time (and who eventually succeeded).

There was a brilliant TV ad campaign for Santorum in the past few months that amazingly changed his image. He was portrayed as a genial, appealing, neighborly fellow in shirtsleeves who was allegedly often in dutch with the White House and who practiced a fun kind of proletarian politics (wrestlers were shown doing cartoonish stunts over his shoulder). The ads didn't save the sinking Santorum, but whoever produced them should get an award! They were state-of-the-art.

The hardworking and once-popular Curt Weldon (whose base crossed party lines) simply imploded over the past two years. He began to seem loopy as he saturated local and national talk radio with his idie fixe about shadowy government coverups preceding 9/11. His allegations seemed intriguing at first, but over time his shifty witnesses faded away, and he was left holding the bag.

Though I already intended to vote for Sestak, as part of the national Democrat antiwar movement, I was shocked by the timing -- three weeks before the election -- of the FBI raids on the home and office of Weldon's daughter and her business partner -- huge photos of which were immediately plastered on the front page of the liberal Philadelphia Inquirer. Those charges about influence peddling first surfaced two years ago, for heaven's sake.

As with my dissident view of the orchestrated revelations about former Rep. Mark Foley, I am concerned about any sign of covert manipulation of the political process. All civil libertarians should be alarmed by police actions that appear designed to influence elections. And an authentically liberal press should adhere to humanistic principles and constantly monitor its own drift toward partisanship.

But my mood of the day is jubilation over the advance of an Italian-American woman, Nancy Pelosi, to the speakership of the House of Representatives. Pelosi didn't coast into prominence on the coattails of an ambitious husband, as did Hillary Clinton. What she got from men was absorbed early on from her shrewd father (a congressman and mayor of Baltimore) in the bare-knuckles backrooms of pragmatic ward politics.

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Though I've sometimes despaired at her girly, wide-eyed Marlo Thomas mannerisms, Pelosi has proved her toughness by her staying power and her deftness in outmaneuvering her rivals. Hillary, in contrast, uses surrogates to do her dirty work and relies on her cocooning by the Secret Service to stave off real-life confrontations.

This is where feminism is right now -- not in the mewling complaints of greenhorn mini-media types about the well-deserved triumph of pro-sex feminists but in women's substantive achievement in high-profile public roles once reserved to men. No more special protections, and no more whining! With Pelosi having won the speakership by strategic virtuosity and sheer grit, we're one step nearer to the inauguration of the first woman president.

Alexandra Fuller is the author of the books "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood" and "Scribbling the Cat: Travels With an African Soldier."

The sky in Wyoming was a little bit bluer this morning. While their Republican incumbent for U.S. Senate, Craig Thomas, was secure with a three-quarters majority, Wyomingites woke to find the race for the U.S. House still in the balance -- something of a miracle in a state that started out the year "secure Republican" and wobbled to the finish line last night as "leaning Republican." In a state as blood red, rural and cowboy as this, the fact that the results were still hanging in the balance as late as 10 a.m. Wednesday was nothing less than a humiliation for Republican incumbent Barbara Cubin, who demonstrated herself so embarrassingly tactless and ill-informed, it was hard for even hardcore Republicans to ignore.

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This should never have been a hard race for a Republican incumbent. Wyoming, unlike many other rural states, has a buoyant economy -- the energy boom has coffers bursting, unemployment is not an issue (if you have a heartbeat, you can get a job, is what they say out here), and roads, schools and other public services are benefiting from the deep pockets of the oil companies. However, also in the deep pockets of the oil companies is Cubin, who has become such a puppet for their concerns she seems to have undergone a moral lobotomy. As recently as August (while California sucked natural gas off Wyoming's desert to fuel its air-conditioned shelters) Cubin claimed (in part as a response to Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth"), "it is important to remember that there still exists broad disagreement within the scientific community on the extent to which humans actually contribute to the Earth's temperature changes." This alone may not have had the impact on Wyomingites it would have had in less hardcore Republican states, but in October, during a debate with challengers Gary Trauner (D) and Thomas Rankin (L) Cubin showed herself so ill-mannered that the pendulum swung, for the first time, firmly in Trauner's direction. Wyomingites might be Republicans but they have cowboy values. Core among them is a strong sense of integrity and courtesy, almost archaic in its formality -- Cubin violated both in one night.

During the debate, Rankin, who has multiple sclerosis and uses an electric wheelchair, challenged Cubin on campaign contributions she accepted as donations from a political action committee connected with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas. Rankin told the Associated Press on the morning after the televised election debate that immediately after the debate, "Barbara walked over to me and said, 'If you weren't sitting in that chair, I'd slap you across the face.' That's quote-unquote." In response, Cubin refused to apologize and maintained that the allegations against DeLay were politically motivated, and she believes he will be found innocent. Wyomingites rolled their eyes.

Meantime, Trauner ran a campaign remarkable for its refusal to go dirty. Although the election has come down to a hand-counted vote in a single county (and at time of writing is still undecided), Wyoming is clearly shifting away from a blind allegiance to the GOP. It seems unclear, however, that Cubin has got the message that if she wins, it was by no means a triumph. Early this morning, she declared victory. At 1 a.m., Cubin led Trauner by 700 votes; 91,385 to 90,685. A win by fewer than 913 votes would automatically trigger a recount under Wyoming state law. However, Cubin, out of touch as ever, was crowing. "I'm calling it," she told the Associated Press. "I just feel really gratified that we're ahead, and I'm sure that we won the election."

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Katha Pollitt is a columnist for the Nation and the author of, most recently, "Virginity or Death!"

The good news: We won! Besides the House and Senate victories, I'm heartened, relieved, thrilled and ecstatic over the defeat of the abortion ban in South Dakota and the defeat of parental notification measures in California and Oregon. (Non-Oregonians, did you know parental notification was on the ballot in that state? Thanks, MSM, for keeping us so well-informed!) Missouri voters gave a thumbs up to stem cell research, and Arizonans rejected a constitutional ban on gay marriage (but made English the official language by a huge margin, just to make life a little tougher for immigrants). Of course, the Dems couldn't have done it without the Republicans, so a big hand to Mark Foley, Jack Abramoff, Rick "man-on-dog" Santorum, Rev. Ted Haggard, Donald Rumsfeld, Katherine Harris, everyone involved in that weird coin scandal in Ohio, George "macaca" Allen, and most of all the Decider himself.

That's where the bad news comes in. Because if people vote for you because they are fed up with the other side, instead of voting for you because they support your programs and principles and admire you personally into the bargain, it may not take them long to get fed up with you and switch back. The Dems face huge issues: Iraq, the economy, the healthcare crisis, immigration, widening class divisions and a general sense of insecurity that the Repubs have manipulated quite skillfully. And did I mention Iraq? Even if the Dems had a much bigger majority, and even if they had real solutions and were totally unified about them, they would have a tough row to hoe. After all, some of the Dem winners are quite conservative, like Virginia's Jim Webb (assuming he keeps his tiny margin of victory), and North Carolina's Heath Shuler. Webb, Reagan's secretary of the Navy, was a Republican until recently -- like a lot of last night's voters. And -- irony of ironies -- the most powerful man in the Senate may turn out to be Joe Lieberman! Rejected by his own party's primary voters, elected thanks largely to Republicans who deserted their own candidate, he really would be saintly if he didn't make the Democrats suffer a bit.

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Still, all that's for the future. Right now, I'm rejoicing at the defeat of the Rovian politics of energizing just enough religious homophobes, while turning off everyone else with ridiculous personal attacks and accusations of siding with the terrorists.

Joe Conason, a columnist for Salon, is the author most recently of "The Raw Deal: How the Bush Republicans Plan to Destroy Social Security and the Legacy of the New Deal."

Today, Republicans should be reminded of their crowing triumphalism after the last midterm elections, when they announced that a shift of eight seats in the House of Representatives and two seats in the Senate represented a partisan realignment of historic proportions. "Things are moving in a new direction," declared Karl Rove in November 2002. He described that victory as "fundamental" while noting that "we'll only know what it is in another two years or four years."

Four years later, with the Democrats taking more than 25 House seats and at least four Senate seats, Rove has some explaining to do. If the small Republican gains of 2002 were so significant, then what is the meaning of the party's big losses now? Tuesday night voters reversed the fundamental realignment proclaimed by the "boy genius" and revoked the mandate that he and his boss claimed to have won in the last two national elections.

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Anticipating this dreaded outcome in the weeks before Election Day, certain Republicans began to describe the Democratic victors as "conservative" -- a spin maneuver designed to salvage ideological victory from electoral repudiation. Although the wingers and their echoes in the mainstream media will continue to reiterate that theme, there isn't much substance to it.

Sherrod Brown, the new Democratic senator from Ohio, is a proud progressive. So is his new colleague Claire McCaskill, who defeated the religious right to win a Senate seat in Missouri. Both support reproductive rights and oppose Social Security privatization. For that matter, so do Jon Tester of Montana and Jim Webb of Virginia, whose races await final counts. Tester and Webb are indeed white males who support gun rights. But Webb opposed Virginia's gay marriage amendment, emphasized issues of class bias and economic inequality in his campaign, and believes in a "progressive approach to policy that prioritizes fairness and justice." And Tester unabashedly advocated embryonic stem cell research and universal healthcare while opposing a federal marriage amendment. (Meanwhile Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee, the most conservative Democratic Senate candidate, profited little from his attacks on his own party's liberalism.)

Those with the most worries in Washington won't be the Democrats -- despite the challenge of uniting their party factions -- but the remnant of moderate Republicans. Over the next two years, the Democratic leadership will force them to choose repeatedly whether to support their president and their party or to protect their own political survival.

Garrison Keillor is the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. You can read his columns here.

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I've run into a lot of people over the past two years who said, "I just don't understand why people can't see through Bush," and they were right, they couldn't. They lived in Republican-free neighborhoods and read the New York Times and listened to NPR and so the political feelings of half the country were a mystery to them. To be successful in politics, you have to cross over the river and see where the other half lives. In the races that I know anything about -- in Minnesota -- Democrats managed to cross that line and talk to Republicans and came back winners. A hard-charging Army National Guard sergeant named Tim Walz stumped everywhere in the 1st District, where two years ago Democrats offered up a symbolic candidate, and beat a six-term Republican. The star of the evening was Amy Klobuchar, blowing a White House-picked Republican out of the water by 20-some points. She is 46, feisty, a county prosecutor, a tireless campaigner of the old school who showed up everywhere, didn't camp out in the latte precincts of the Twin Cities, fought on all fronts, and struck an aggressive tone with hints of populism that rang true this year. She told stories in her stump speech about how the rich and powerful game the system that swayed people more than statistics could. She got a little boost from the fact that her dad was a popular sportswriter and columnist -- who was the last Democrat to throw a fundraiser starring football players? -- but she did the heavy lifting herself, in her bright blue suit, her husband and child at her side.

Tim Walz is a beefy high school teacher and coach who doesn't quite fit the mold of the pale pursed-lipped Minnesota liberal. He gets hyper at rallies, jumps around, whoops, waves his arms, gives two-handed handshakes. You can argue that voters wanted change and were upset about Iraq -- that they saw through Bush -- but you still have to put candidates out there whom voters like. Howard Dean said, "It's an insult not to ask people for their votes." That's a big change for Democrats, something they learned from Bush.

The Current Occupant campaigned in Minnesota and though he did help to elect a lunatic in the Republican 6th District, he didn't make a big impression. He will be graceful and conciliatory in his press conference Wednesday, but he knows that he spent the last of his political capital this fall. I'd expect him to hunker down in the White House, wrap himself in the flag, stick with whom and what he knows, fight against same sex stem cells, and dare the Democrats to come after him. I doubt that he'll be jetting around the world in a quest for amity among nations. Which surely they will. The Bush administration is a rich tale of corruption and incompetence and the story begs to be told. And so the 2008 campaign begins.

Debra J. Dickerson, a frequent contributor to Salon, is the author of "The End of Blackness" and "An American Story."

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Whether "our" candidates won or lost, this election cycle was a particularly heady time for blacks. The ugly, long-suffering wallflower who loses weight and buys some boobs, suddenly both the Dems and the GOP are seeing us anew and it will be interesting to gauge how we handle our newfound power. Madonna or 'ho? Regardless of one's own personal preferences, it simply cannot be gainsaid that, with the GOP's renunciation of the Southern strategy and embrace, however tactical, of blacks and their yummy votes, all the old calculations are out the window. As stunning as blacks' headlong rush to get shitfaced at a party that just yesterday would have called the cops on them is the cold calculation with which Democratic blacks have embraced power politics by, for instance, extracting major concessions from the Dems in exchange for their endorsements and embracing George "Macaca" Allen once his weakened position meant he'd trade mega-millions for black projects. Politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows.

Richard Rodriguez is an editor at Pacific News Service and author of numerous books, including his collection of essays, "Brown: The Last Discovery of America."

President Karl Christian Rove suffered a stunning defeat with the midterm elections. And it is doubtful that the Rove White House will be able to recover its poise in his two years remaining in office.

Rove, the 43rd president of the United States, was a brilliant strategist. He understood numbers, understood (counterintuitively) that a minority president could ignore the middle and govern by playing to his core constituency. In Karl Rove's calculation red-hot South Carolina was more important than hazy blue California -- nothing to do with population size, everything to do with fervor.

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Rove's success, his strategy of distinguishing red from blue, was bound to be limited. Simply put: He ran out of time.

For in defining and refining his base (with patriotic speeches in support of a hopeless war and religious homilies against abortion and "the homosexual agenda"), Rove also sharpened his opposition. Blue grew bluer as red blazed so brightly.

After six years of Karl Rove, America is exposed as more divided than ever -- Northern Virginia against Southern Virginia, the Eastern seaboard against the Southeastern seaboard, etc.

But this election has also shown that America after Rove is more complicated for the left. Many new Democrats in Congress are as conservative in many of their values -- are as apt to be antiabortion or gun-owning or anti-gay marriage -- as the Republicans they replaced.

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The question for the Democratic leadership is how much of the Rove example they should follow. Should they try to revive a liberal agenda, and thus play to a core constituency? Or should they become a party of the middle, always in danger of being accused of not standing for anything?

President Rove showed America the advantages of playing the extremes. The collapse of the Rove presidency shows the strategy's limits.

Jane Smiley is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of several books, including "A Thousand Acres" and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel."

Election Night thoughts: In spite of the fact that I am pleased that the Dems have won the House and picked up a lot of governors' mansions, and possibly (as of 10:20 PDT), the Senate, I do feel cautious. It's not so much the Republicans I distrust (of course I distrust them -- they are criminals!), it's the Democrats I am worried about. Can they step up and take charge and change the direction of the country? Will they? I will be watching them like a hawk for the next two years, deducing from their votes and their speeches who their masters (and mistresses) are. Will it be the voters and the citizens or will it be the corporations? Now we find out who the Dems are, and we are going to hold them to a high standard. The voters are aroused, Congresswoman Pelosi! Pay attention!

David Kuo is the author of "Tempting Faith" and J-Walking, his blog at Beliefnet.com.

Last night's message? Americans hate George W. Bush in 2006 just as much as they hated William J. Clinton in 1994, proving that hate is an American family value after all.

So, Democrats, surprise the American people. They are ready. Be humble -- kind of like Ken Mehlman was late Tuesday night trying to explain the beating Republicans were absorbing. Be kind to the evangelicals who voted for you. Respect them. That is more than the White House does. When they bite don't hold it against Jesus. They really care most about the poor and justice and compassion -- though they don't always remember it.

Republicans? Savor the desert. And if the message points coming out of RNC headquarters this morning are really where the party is headed -- cut government, cut taxes, cut regulations -- enjoy the desert, you will be there for a while. If you want to find a way out, read a speech by this Texas governor in 1999. It was called "The Duty of Hope." You might like it.

Evangelicals? Fast from politics the next two years so everyone will remember you love Jesus more than politics.


Salon Staff

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