WASHINGTON -- Sure, Election Day 2009 will scare moderate Democrats and make passage of Obamacare more difficult. Sure, it makes it easier for resurgent Republicans to raise money and recruit candidates for 2010. But the most important effect of Tuesday's elections is historical. It demolishes the great realignment myth of 2008.
In the aftermath of last year's Obama sweep, we heard endlessly about its fundamental, revolutionary, transformational nature. How it was ushering in an FDR-like realignment for the 21st century in which new demographics -- most prominently, rising minorities and the young -- would bury the GOP far into the future. One book proclaimed "The Death of Conservatism," while the more modest merely predicted the terminal decline of the Republican Party into a regional party of the Deep South or a rump party of marginalized angry white men.
This was all ridiculous from the beginning. 2008 was a historical anomaly. A uniquely charismatic candidate was running at a time of deep war weariness, with an intensely unpopular Republican president, against a politically incompetent opponent, amid the greatest financial collapse since the Great Depression. And still he won by only seven points.
Exactly a year later comes the empirical validation of that skepticism. Virginia -- presumed harbinger of the new realignment, having gone Democratic in '08 for the first time in 44 years -- went red again. With a vengeance. Barack Obama had carried it by six points. The Republican gubernatorial candidate won by 17 -- a 23-point swing. New Jersey went from plus 15 Democratic in 2008 to minus 4 in 2009. A 19-point swing.
What happened? The vaunted Obama realignment vanished. In 2009 in Virginia, the black vote was down by 20 percent; the under-30 vote by 50 percent. And as for independents, the ultimate prize of any realignment, they bolted. In both Virginia and New Jersey they'd gone narrowly for Obama in '08. This year they went Republican by a staggering 33 points in Virginia and by an equally shocking 30 points in New Jersey.
White House apologists will say the Virginia Democrat was weak. If the difference between Bob McDonnell and Creigh Deeds was so great, how come when the same two men ran against each other statewide for attorney general four years ago the race was a virtual dead heat? Which made the '09 McDonnell-Deeds rematch the closest you get in politics to a laboratory experiment for measuring the change in
The Obama coattails of 2008 are gone. The expansion of the electorate, the excitement of the young, came in uniquely propitious Democratic circumstances and amid unparalleled enthusiasm for electing the first African-American president.
November '08 was one-shot, one-time, never to be replicated. Nor was November '09 a realignment. It was a return to the norm -- and definitive confirmation that 2008 was one of the great flukes in American political history.
The irony of 2009 is that the anti-Democratic tide overshot the norm -- deeply blue New Jersey, for example, elected a Republican governor for the first time in 12 years -- because Democrats so thoroughly misread 2008 and the mandate they assumed it bestowed. Obama saw himself as anointed by a watershed victory to remake American life. Not letting the cup pass from his lips, he declared to Congress only five weeks after his swearing-in his "New Foundation" for America -- from remaking the one-sixth of the American economy that is health care to massive government regulation of the economic lifeblood that is energy.
Moreover, the same conventional wisdom that proclaimed the dawning of a new age last November dismissed the inevitable popular reaction to Obama's hubristic expansion of government, taxation, spending and debt -- the tea party demonstrators, the town hall protesters -- as a raging rabble of resentful reactionaries, AstroTurf-phony and Fox News-deranged.
Some rump. Just last month Gallup found that conservatives outnumber liberals by 2 to 1 (40 percent to 20 percent) and even outnumber moderates (at 36 percent). So on Tuesday, the "rump" rebelled. It's the natural reaction of a center-right country to a governing party seeking to rush through a left-wing agenda using temporary majorities created by the one-shot election of 2008. The misreading of that election -- and of the mandate it allegedly bestowed -- is the fundamental cause of the Democratic debacle of 2009.