The defeat of the Republican Party in 2008 was supposed to be permanent. It was the "end of conservatism," liberalism was ascendant, and Barack Obama was the first Democratic president to win an election with a majority of votes since Jimmy Carter. After two thumpin's in a row, Republicans could only rise from the ashes of defeat by compromising with the popular new president.
The conventional wisdom on Nov. 3, 2008, could not have predicted Tuesday's "shellacking." Rather than compromise, Republicans gummed up the works as much as possible, making Democrats fight for every inch of progress as the economy continued to falter and unemployment numbers remained grim. It worked beautifully. Republicans, lacking an agenda beyond destroying the president, secured their biggest gains in the House since 1938 because 1938 was the last time the economy was this bad.
Speaker-elect John Boehner articulated the motto of our new do-nothing Congress in a post-election interview: "While our new majority will serve as your voice in the people's House, we must remember it's the president who sets the agenda for our government."
Democrats and liberals would do well to learn from the GOP's discipline in the aftermath of 2008. They should ignore the empty demands from media opinion-makers to "tack to the center," and double their efforts to, if not get progressive legislation passed, articulate why progressive solutions can help solve problems Republicans don't even want to acknowledge. The Republican identity-politics narrative that Tuesday's results represent Real America Taking Back Its Country is belied by the actual results.
Democrats were slaughtered at the polls regardless of how subservient they were to the larger Democratic agenda -- maverick Sen. Russ Feingold was true to his liberaltarian character in opposing both TARP and the PATRIOT Act, and he lost to an empty suit with an R next to his name. Voting against the Affordable Care Act didn't make conservadems any safer -- more than half of Democrats who voted against the ACA lost their seats. The America that went to the polls in 2010 isn't any more "real" than the one that handed Democrats the White House and the biggest majority in decades in 2008, but it was older, whiter, and more Republican. And even this far more conservative electorate balked at electing many of the most rightward Republican candidates in statewide races where their radical beliefs faced greater scrutiny from the press.
That 2008 electorate could be back in force in 2012, but they will need a reason to show up other than re-electing the president that stirred their hopes two years ago. When Scott Brown defeated Martha Coakely to replace Ted Kennedy in the Senate last year, Democrats responded with a pathetic display of teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing self-pity before eventually pulling themselves together to pass the Affordable Care Act. Instead of returning to Congress "chastened" by political defeat, Democrats should redouble their efforts to do what they can during the lame-duck session, in particular ending the military's discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy and passing the DREAM Act. In states like California, Colorado, and particularly Nevada, Hispanic voters came through for Democrats, preventing a Republican wave from turning into an outright tsunami. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in particular, owes his victory against Sharron Angle to Hispanics in Nevada who gave him nine out of 10 of their votes. The number of people these acts would directly affect is relatively small. But wiping away the last vestiges of legalized systemic discrimination has an outsize symbolic meaning to Obama voters who saw in the first black president a vision of an American future where such things no longer exist.
The last thing Democrats should do is indulge in public rituals of consternation and apology, promising to be more subservient to the interests of the wealthy and more deferential to cultural biases against Hispanics and gays and lesbians. There's already a party that does that.
As Tom Perriello wrote to his supporters after losing his seat in Virginia, "Real change does not happen with one election night victory or end with one loss. We shouldn't have expected nirvana after our win in 2008 and we shouldn't expect armageddon now."
Majorities don't last forever, and if there's anything to be learned from Tuesday, it's that a lot can change in two years. But Democrats have to be willing to recognize, as Republicans did in 2008, that surrender is not a strategy. It ain't over till it's over, and in democratic politics, it's never over.