Politicians wag their fingers.

Politicians wag their fingers.

Politicians wag their fingers.

What women really think.
Nov. 3 2010 3:21 PM

Wag the Finger

A candidate's favorite way of saying, "I told you so!"

Click to view a slide show.

The talking point for last night's Republican victories was "convey  humility." The likely new House speaker, John Boehner, encapsulated this attitude with his remarks about the "hard work" now coming, the grand national sleeve-rolling that must now commence. His vindication was expressed with tears, and when supporters chanted "U-S-A" he cut them short. "I'm gonna be brief because we have work to do and frankly this is not a time for celebration," Boehner said.

Likewise, GOP whip Eric Cantor of Virginia and Republican Senator-elect from Florida Marco Rubio stayed on message, calling the victories a "second chance" for Republicans. "We make a grave mistake if we believe that tonight, these results are somehow an embrace of the Republican Party," Rubio said, his tone almost downbeat in its sobriety.

But body language told a different story. Last night, the defining image of Republican victory was the index finger, extended in priapic victory. The finger said many things, chief among them: Told you so. Rand Paul, the Tea Party favorite newly destined to represent Kentucky in the Senate, never one to obey talking points, lifted both fingers in the air and, in the knowing tone of the Peanuts teacher, told the Senate over and over: "deliberate upon this," suckas! 

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And on it went. In Texas, re-elected Republican Gov. Rick Perry prodded the air with his index finger while declaring that "champions of big government are cleaning out their desks right now!" On MSNBC, Chris Matthews asked Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn how, exactly, Republicans will cut federal spending. She hoisted a finger and said with condescension, "Amazing thing—cut federal spending!"

Of course, the finger wag is a time-honored bipartisan gesture, and Democrats on election night did their share. For some—like Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, who beat off Tea Partier and astute media dodger Sharron Angle—the finger was a visible sigh of relief. Phew. I'm still here. For California Sen. Barbara Boxer, it was revenge. Ha! I'm still here. For Joe Sestak, the would-be senator from Pennsylvania who raised his finger to congratulate Republican Pat Toomey on a "well-fought" campaign," it was a white flag of surrender.

Andrew Cuomo, the incoming governor of New York, pronounced voters "disgusted," and added "they are right," before pointing his finger and promising change in Albany. For Cuomo, the finger was a symbol of reform, a gentler iteration of vanquished opponent Carl Paladino's famed baseball bat. It was also a message to voters: Heard you loud and clear.

View a slide show of candidates wagging their fingers.

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years.