Over at his blog, Brendan Nyhan has a nice critique of the "tactical fallacy," or the tendency among pundits and consultants to blame electoral losses on insufficiently savvy tactics, rather than outside forces like unemployment or voter enthusiasm. Here's Nyhan:
The problem is that any reasonable political tactic chosen by professionals will tend to resonate in favorable political environments and fall flat in unfavorable political environments (compare Bush in '02 to Bush '06, or Obama in '08 to Obama in '09-'10). But that doesn't mean the candidates are succeeding or failing because of the tactics they are using. While strategy certainly can matter on the margin in individual races, aggregate congressional and presidential election outcomes are largely driven by structural factors (the state of the economy, the number of seats held by the president's party, whether it's a midterm or presidential election year, etc.). Tactical success often is a reflection of those structural factors rather than an independent cause.
Nyhan is right to say that smart tactical decisions by President Obama can't save the Democratic majority, but smart tactical decisions by conservative and moderate Democrats in 2009 could have kept economic conditions from getting so terrible as to now virtually ensure a Republican sweep.
At the beginning of his administration, moderate Senate Democrats and Blue Dogs in the House could have made the decision to stick with the whole of President Obama's agenda; they could have gone for the stimulus as initially proposed by the administration -- fewer tax cuts, more aid to states -- and could have resisted the urge to negotiate away health-care reform as well as the administration's subsequent attempts at stimulus. A more robust stimulus would have kept more people employed and generated more economic growth, and a shorter fight over health-care reform might have kept public support higher than it eventually was. Better tactical decisions might have altered the strategic landscape in the Democratic Party's favor.
Of course, I completely understand why conservative and moderate Democrats took the easier route and positioned themselves against Obama's agenda when the opportunities arose. In the short-term, it makes sense for Blanche Lincoln to portray herself as opposed -- or at least skeptical -- of the president's agenda; she represents a fairly conservative state. The problem comes in the slightly longer term, when that tactical choice limits strategic possibilities. Had Lincoln and co. been slightly less worried about public opinion in 2009, they might have been better positioned for good performance in the only poll that really matters.
-- Jamelle Bouie