So what happened this election cycle? As voters across the country head to the polls today, here are a few thoughts.
Democrats never succeeded in changing the trajectory of the election cycle that developed roughly midway through last year.
[IMGCAP(1)]Once voters decided President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats weren't the answer, the election cycle was set. That doesn't mean that the size of the Republican wave was inevitable, but it does mean that all of the Democratic spin turned out to be little more than hot air.
Democrats wanted to blame President George W. Bush and make the midterm elections a referendum on the last Republican president and the last Republican Congress. But while voters agreed that Obama inherited an economic mess from his predecessor, they saw the 2010 election as an opportunity to tell Obama how he was doing, not as a time to repeat their previous verdicts on Bush.
Democrats insisted that the election was a choice, not a referendum. It certainly didn't turn out that way. When one party controls both chambers of Congress and the White House, the election is always a referendum. If you aren't sure about that, just ask Republican strategists about 2006 and Democratic operatives about 1994.
Democratic operatives and talking heads have been complaining for weeks about money coming from "outside" Republican groups, and there is no doubt that groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Crossroads, American Action Network and 60 Plus Association helped Republican candidates (although Democrats rarely note that the U.S. Chamber also ran TV ads for some business-friendly Democratic House candidates).
But if Democrats ignore their own "outside" allies and blame GOP money for the midterm results, they are deluding themselves. Republican money wouldn't have been there without the Democratic agenda, and GOP spending wouldn't have been as effective had the president been viewed as having a successful two years.
The first time you hear some idiot talking head on TV arguing Democrats lost because they compromised too much with Republicans during the past two years, turn the TV off. Yes, you will hear that case made, but it is inane and delusional. The Democrats' biggest problem is not that their most liberal supporters stayed home.
The tea party movement helped generate enthusiasm for Republicans, but it helped produce so many ill-prepared, inept and damaged candidates that it turned out to be a decidedly mixed blessing for Republicans.
Christine O'Donnell cost the GOP a Senate seat, and regardless of the outcomes in Alaska, Colorado, Nevada and Kentucky, national Republican strategists would've had an easier time winning Senate seats if more experienced candidates with broader appeal had won primaries.
Republican insiders point to the number of former Members who will be returning to Congress and to repeat candidates to argue the new GOP won't be as unruly as many think. But it's an open question how the true outsiders will behave, and whether they are so connected to the tea party movement that they will end up creating as much trouble for their own party's leadership as for the Democrats.
Don't read long-term trends into this election or any other.
This country is changing, and that will have a long-term effect on our politics and our political parties. But elections reflect the here and now. Two years ago, that benefited Democrats. Today, it benefits Republicans. We don't yet know what 2012 will look like, or what party or candidates will benefit from it.
If Republicans repeat their mistakes of 1995-96, they deserve to be horse-whipped.
GOP Congressional leaders surely understand that this election wasn't about them and their party, and that they have no particular mandate. But some Republican Members (both sitting Members and those who will take office next year) are not so insightful.
Yes, voters want more and better jobs and are worried about spending and a larger role for government. But anyone who thinks this election is a mandate to repeal the entire Obama health care bill or abolish the Department of Education or repeal any amendment to the Constitution is somebody who truly doesn't understand public opinion or elections.
Politics and political coverage has deteriorated to such a point that even I am offended by it — and I'm about as cynical as anyone.
There is more polling now, and much of it is useless. There is more political coverage on TV, particularly cable, and most of it is embarrassingly stupid. Thank goodness for Chuck Todd, Charlie Cook and those others who maintain high standards of political analysis.
Prime-time programming decisions by senior executives at Fox News and MSNBC apparently make financial sense, but they have undermined civility and divided the country. The country would be better off if starting at 4 p.m., the two networks ran test patterns for the rest of the night.
"Gotcha" journalism has taken over our politics and elections, with feigned and real outrage standard fare, no matter how small or unintentional the misstep.
Finally, America's celebrity culture has spilled over into politics. Today it is Sarah Palin. Tomorrow it will be someone else. People are so desperate to get their faces on TV that they will talk about anything.
Tomorrow, it will all begin again.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.