The morning after

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(HOST) Commentator Philip Baruth attended the Democratic Election Night Victory Party at the Wyndham Hotel, and it reminded him of nothing so much as the climax of Irwin Allen’s 1972 blockbuster disaster film The Poseiden Adventure.

(BARUTH) I don’t know if you remember Irwin Allen’s original Poseidon Adventure, but I’ll never forget it: I was ten years old, it was my first disaster movie, and Gene Hackman was like a living god to me. The thing about disaster movies, as a genre, is that they’re designed to make you experience the threat in some real, physical way. You’re supposed to feel trapped and claustrophobic. In fact, when the genre hit its baroque period, studios used equipment like Sens-A-Round to transmit actual shock waves into the theater.

But Sens-A-Round never really cut it for me. The Poseidon Adventure managed more with just one high concept: an overturned oceanliner, full of survivors who have no idea which way is up.

So I never again witnessed that mixture of dread and confusion and desperation. At least until the 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections.

If you remember November 2000, Clinton’s eight years in office had created a pretty cushy ship. Al Gore and Joe Lieberman were barnstorming Florida; they had Joe-mentum, or so the papers said.

Then Florida was moved into Gore’s column and as quickly moved out again.

And the world went belly up for Democrats. They blamed Gore, blamed themselves. They were suddenly utterly rudderless.

By the run-up to the 2004 election, the party had split into two loud factions: those who wanted to attack Bush for the failures of the Iraq War, and those who wanted to hug him close on the War and fight the election on domestic issues. For me, it was like the Poseidon Adventure all over again, with the survivors trapped inside the ship unable to agree which way is up. Half do what only seems logical — they climb up, but to their doom. And the other half — Gene Hackman’s people — attempt the counter-intuitive: they descend, but toward salvation.

The thing is, though, neither group in the ship knows whether they’ve chosen correctly until it’s too late to go back.

Which brings us, of course, to Howard Dean’s Fifty-State Strategy. Democrats should funnel money to all fifty states, Dean argued, regardless of whether a state seemed destined to become a battleground in the coming cycle. Critics said the strategy would leave the party defenseless when the money was needed most.

But last night it became clear that Dean was right. Investing in party structure nationally, even in ruby-red states, left Democrats well-prepared to capitalize on a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment. Pick-ups in the West, the Mid-West and the South fueled Democrats’ take-over of the House.

Now, there’s a moment at the bitter end of the Poseidon Adventure, when Gene Hackman has bullied and dragged his people to the engine room, and they’re huddled there, without any idea whether they’ll live or die. And that’s when they hear rescuers banging on the hull.

Within minutes, a torch is cutting an escape hatch, and then suddenly they’re out in the open air, helicopters hovering all around them.

And last night, at the Democrats’ Burlington Victory Party, that’s all I could think about: the end of the Poseidon Adventure.

A clean sea breeze, and Maureen McGovern singing about the morning after.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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