Read Slate's complete coverage of the 2010 midterm elections.
"The 2010 midterms start right now" was the word on Fox News at 7:50 last night. That was a shock. Some of the populace had surmised, on the basis of the ratio of politicking to legislating on Capitol Hill, that the 2010 midterms had started about an hour into the 2009 inaugural parade. Much of the press, joining these citizens in that impression, had decided that the only remaining questions regarded the precise nature of the bloodbath being drawn for the Democrats, a party undone by the frustration of the electorate, the deft fabrications of the Republicans, and its own habitual gutlessness.
But, OK, the midterms were starting right now with the ascent of Marco Rubio, the Senator-elect from Florida and the new star of the Republican Party. "Does the left fear this guy?" asked Fox's Megyn Kelly. "He's the son, I think, of a bartender and a maid." A blue-collar biography, artfully narrated, is an asset, true, but there was more to Rubio's parentage than this. "Well," said analyst Juan Williams, "he's the son of Cuban immigrants," thus contributing the frankness about tribal matters for which he gets paid the big bucks.
There was a weird hush in Fox's studio, almost as if producers were compensating for the visual noise of their horsey graphics. On MSNBC, the mood was less sober and the look more sleek. Its screen was likewise crammed with data—so much so that the information presented did not strictly prove informative—but the cramming was far more handsome. A keyed-up Chuck Todd fizzed with statistics and fiddled with gizmos. Chris Matthews slapped his locker-room laugh around. Keith Olbermann, telling us that pro-wrestling czarina Linda McMahon had lost her Senate race in Connecticut, was simultaneously enthusiastic about and embarrassed by the obvious pun and thus groaned at himself such that he stumbled. The Connecticut race, he said, was "a hard-fought—I hate to use the term wrestlingkind of match—but there it is."
I took this as a cue to stroll down to the polling place at the corner and do my civic duty. Returning home—still trembling from the effort of not voting for the candidate of the Rent Is 2 Damn High Party—I flipped back to Fox News. A familiar voice was venturing that some race or another was "a good indication of that message being sent and being received by the electorate." It's really very difficult to take notes on what Sarah Palin is saying. The distinctive syntax doesn't stick in the head as the pen races behind it, and you're ready to believe anything your handwriting tells you, and it's almost too much to hope that last night she coined the word disenfranchment. It seems possible that Palin learned English exclusively from watching election-night coverage and mimicking the improvised syntax of the anchors and the jerry-built conceits of the acceptance speeches. Here was CBS's Bob Schieffer elaborating on the evening's theme of "repudiation": "This is more than a message to Barack Obama. This is like a Halloween rerun." Here was another CBS personality stumbling into an appropriately piquant subordinate clause about the sort of Blue Dog Democrats "who are being beaten tonight."
Around 9:30, Marco Rubio—the "very attractive" Marco Rubio, to quote CNN's Wolf Blitzer—took to the podium down in Coral Gables. At this point, I was prepared for the experience to be exalting, ennobling, possibly erotic. I wasn't disappointed. Rubio glimmered. He combined humility and confidence. He corrected course wonderfully. At one point, telling an anecdote about how his four beautiful children offered to donate their allowance money to his campaign, he started rushing his speech. But by the time I had finished scrawling he's rushing his speech, he'd already settled back into a stately pace. ABC's man on the scene told us that Rubio's wife was an alumna of the Dolphins' cheerleadering squad, that the salsa band at his victory party was proclaiming him "Marco Rubio, presidente," and that he was the son of Zeus and Olympias.
What was happening on CNN? What wasn't? There were never fewer than 12 pundits on set at any moment and sometimes as many as 15. The group sat at two tables, rather like a class splitting into discussion groups. Amazingly, Anderson Cooper elicited a coherent conversation from his teeming panel. Looking back to the lessons of 1994 and forecasting what the coming years would bring, people suggested that Obama and Speaker-presumptive Boehner might find common ground on education reform. They made predictions about the destiny of the payroll tax. James Carville voiced a need to rein in the prognostication: "I'm kinda curious about what's gonna happen in the next couple hours."
Over on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were offering live coverage in top form. They were especially sharp at mocking the news channels' graphics presentations—technophilia for its own sake—with The Daily Show's John Oliver wearing an absurd green-screen body suit so that his limbs lit up with exit-poll numbers. The only flaw with that bit is that it was outpaced by the absurdity of actual reality. With everyone now employing gimmicks as fancy as CNN's Magic Wall, that network has taken the next leap forward into pointlessness. John King was "up on the Matrix." What is the Matrix? As Keanu Reeves will tell you, the Matrix is a simulated reality created to pacify and subdue humanity. Its 3-D-ish screen abounded with features capable of communicating nothing special in dazzling detail, never more so than when King checked in with "those active in the Twitterverse." There was a color-coded map of the United States said to express where people were tweeting unfavorable things about the Tea Party, which was just about everywhere and so what? "What can we learn from the latest tweets that have been sent out?" asked Wolf. About the midterms? Nothing that CNN could tell us. The most correct answer is that tickets for next year's Foo Fighters tour are on presale.
With victory assured, the Republican National Committee had decided that the coast was clear for its inept chairman to make television appearances. Thus did Michael Steele turn up on Fox sometime after 1 a.m. talking about what the RNC had done "to move this party—to turn this elephant, as I like to say." Asked if he would seek another term as chairman, Steele affected to say that he hadn't "decided yet." Hearing this, Megyn Kelly laughed as non-impolitely as possible, then said, "While you still are, lemme ask you this question. ..." His term ended right then.