After Barack Obama won the presidency with large majorities in the House and Senate, some commentators proclaimed that the president-elect had permanently altered the American political landscape, creating what the writer John Judis called "the Democratic realignment of 2008." For instance, former Clinton adviser Lanny J. Davis announced that Obama and his party were "likely to create a new governing majority coalition that could dominate American politics for a generation or more."
Just two years later, however, many observers are faulting Obama for failing to prevent what seems likely to be an electoral debacle for the Democrats. Conservatives have tended to claim that the public has rejected the President's policy agenda, while pundits and Democrats (including Judis) have faulted Obama for not "connecting" with the American people and for failing to employ a more effective message.
In reality, the gains that Obama and his party made were unlikely to be sustainable -- let alone permanent -- regardless of the administration's policy agenda or message. The large Democratic majority in the House includes members in 48 House districts that supported John McCain. It's therefore not surprising that many of those seats are likely to return to the GOP fold. The president's party tends to lose ground in midterm elections even under the best of circumstances. In the current economy, defending those seats is nearly impossible.
To understand what is happening now, we should remember what took place after Lyndon Johnson's victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan's defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980. Both were widely perceived as mandate elections and were accompanied by significant gains in Congress for their parties. Like Obama, both presidents had significant legislative achievements during their first term in office, and yet LBJ and Reagan suffered substantial losses in the subsequent midterms as the opposition party picked off marginal seats. LBJ's Democrats lost 47 seats (or about 16%) in the House in 1966, while Reagan's GOP lost 26 seats (or about 14%) from their relatively small minority caucus in 1982. (The 1994 Republican Revolution did not result in substantial Democratic gains in 1996, in part because the GOP made most of its gains in districts that already favored them at the presidential level.)
The dubious nature of permanent electoral shifts was especially clear during George W. Bush's administration. For years, former Bush adviser Karl Rove touted his plans to create a "permanent Republican majority." However, despite the massive approval boost Bush received after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Rove's efforts resulted not in the dominant GOP coalition he envisioned but in the narrowest re-election victory since Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Bush's GOP majorities in Congress then dissolved in 2006 and Republicans lost even more seats in 2008.
In general, the notion that periodic individual elections can create permanent changes in partisan alignments is not well-supported by the historical record, which looks far more messy and chaotic. As the Yale political scientist David Mayhew and others have shown, even the supposedly classic example of a realigning election -- the 1896 election of William McKinley (Rove's favorite) -- cannot withstand empirical scrutiny. It's hard to imagine why 2008 would have been any different.
Given this context, the fragility of Obama's majority should not be surprising. Indeed, it should be reassuring from a democratic perspective. The last two elections swept many Democrats into office who were relatively poor fits to their district. In some of those districts, the replacement of those Democrats with Republicans will create a better alignment between the views of voters and their representatives. In other districts, the person elected may not match the voters well and will face contested races in future challenge. In general, there is little reason to think that the pro-GOP shift will be any more permanent than Democrats' gains in 2006 and 2008. Regardless of what happens tonight, the dynamism of American democracy will continue.
Update 11/3 2:19 PM: See my first take on last night's election for more.