It also doesn't help to have an incumbent president who is widely reviled. Before the 2004 election, half of Americans approved of his performance. This time, three out of four didn't.
The good news for Republicans? Despite the powerful undertow of the economy and George W. Bush, the Republican presidential candidate got more than 46 percent of the vote. That doesn't look like a party that has no fundamental appeal. It looks like a party whose fundamental appeal was overwhelmed by transient calamities.
Barack Obama was a good candidate who ran a smart race. But in the fall campaign, his biggest asset was being kissed by fortune. With this economy Hillary Clinton would also have beaten John McCain. Heck, John Kerry could have won in this environment.
Given my own ideological preference for a government of modest ambitions at home and abroad, it is tempting to say that what the GOP has to do to regain power is swear off unnecessary wars, violations of privacy and fiscal bloat. But the truth is not so congenial. Republicans did just the opposite in Bush's first term and won in 2004. Substitute a terrorist attack for the September financial meltdown and Obama would have gone down in history as the black Michael Dukakis.
How can Republicans come back? Easy. All they need is for the incoming president to fail at reviving the economy, make a mess of Iraq or suffer some other major setback in the next four years. On the other hand, if the Obama administration can point to a respectable recovery, a successful departure from Baghdad and no unexpected disasters, putting Abe Lincoln himself on the ticket won't restore Republicans to power in 2012.
In the next four years, they certainly should look for salable policies, attractive candidates and fresh themes. But mainly they need patience and luck. Those worked for the Democrats.