Republicans are already talking about 2012 - and they should - but I would like to inject a word of caution. In 2008 the Democrats believed they had finally turned the country to the right way, and were on their way to further victories. Had you asked experienced political observers at the time, they would have acknowledged that some losses in the midterm elections would be according to precedent and likely. They didn't expect anything of this magnitude, but they would not have been shocked to learn that some retrenchment was necessary. And they would still have been confident.
Momentum feels as if it will go on forever. But there is always some element of fashion and getting on the bandwagon to it. Nonliberals have made much of the fact that the ideas of Democrats have been fashionable among elites rather than well thought out by most of them. So too with the Tea Party. There are certainly some profound thinkers and able reasoners among them, but there are also some who have come along because of impressions.
Don't get me wrong, I think the fact that smaller government is suddenly fashionable outside the Beltway is a wonderful thing. But now that being impressed with Obama is so 2008, we do well to remember that the Tea Party might be so 2010 next time around. I worry about this especially because progressives are generally better at appealing to people's sense of fashion and coolness than other groups are. Not everyone inhabits the same blogosphere world of the wars of ideas that we do. Listening to and reading interviews with voters before and after the election - any election - I am always appalled by how nonrational factors affect people's choices. Even those who purport to be operating from reason often show only superficial understanding of the issues.
We hope, in a representative democracy, that the cumulation of ordinary folks' gut feelings has the wisdom of crowds in it, and brings us pretty near the mark in elections. The survival and prosperity of America, combined with its expanding freedom for individuals over time suggests that this is so. We might make small errors in course but correct them next time around. Yet we elected Roosevelt by large margins in '32 and '36 - a triumph of impression over reality that changed our country. The hardy American self-reliant spirit decided that having government take care of us a lot more was a good thing. Maybe it was a good thing; perhaps we had underestimated the amount of government safety net we needed and had to correct it. But it was certainly a dramatic shift in attitude that has increased rather than ebbed since that time.
We tacitly recognise that all candidates are not only running on their arguments and logic, but on the narrative and impression they can create. I worry that the latter may be more important.
I don't single America out as being especially bad or shallow in this way. I think everyone else is much worse, actually, and Americans are more rational than other nations. There is a belief among liberals that all those Other Americans are much the inferior of Europeans in this regard. It is an article of faith that all those obese, McDonald's and Wal-Mart building, noisy religious people in America are not the equal of the witty and philosophical Europeans, who go every day to museums and drink excellent wine over leisurely meals. That is of course an absolutely insane impression for liberals to have, given the events of the 20th C, but it has been believed by our elites since...well, since 1800 actually - and no amount of evidence has persuaded them otherwise.*
No, Americans, for all their following of foolish enthusiasms, are about the best at rationality, and I don't apologise for us in this regard. Yet it is the lot of all mankind to be swayed by subrational appeals, and we are only better by comparison. The next election cycle will have its own fashions, and it may be that having slowed the growth of government somewhat will be enough for the American people, who will decide that they again want the government to give them stuff we can't afford.
I confess I feel a bit helpless in this. The wars of ideas is the only electoral battlefield I dare fight on. I have no confidence in my ability to convince anyone that smaller government is cool, or that liberal candidates are "out of touch" or "don't care about people like me," or any of the other things pollsters measure. I have decided that those questions the surveys ask are indeed better predictors of elections, however much I think that they should not be. I hope we hire better PR guys than they do. I hope even more that we have the better arguments and candidates, and deserve those good PR guys, but the reality is that elections won't hinge on that.
*I give the Brits, and perhaps the Danes and Norwegians, credit for having just enough people connected to reality to be exempt from this generalised criticism. The Swiss have recognised reality well enough to act sensibly as well, but their solution has been an enormously cynical one.