I don't get the feeling that Republicans are particularly depressed right now. I suspect they should be. It was a terrible year for them
What went right for the GOP this year? Picking up a couple of Governors is definitely good news for them. The party-switch this week was good news for them. After that, it's a short list.
What went wrong?
The biggest problem that Republicans have had, for some time now, is that there's a large part of the Republican party network that is better off out of power. One of the things that makes democracy work is that politicians and party operatives want to win office, which causes them to support popular policies that are designed to actually improve things for voters, and then to implement those things when they're in office. Pols and party workers may or may not actually care about improving the nation, but normally they have strong career, selfish interests in winning. Unfortunately for Republicans, it turns out that not everyone in politics has an incentive to win, and conservative politics is dominated by a group of people who have a major financial incentive for Republicans to be out of office.
And make no mistake about it -- the effects of being bullied by people who make a living off selling things to conservatives were terrible for the GOP this year. Three things to talk about: elections, legislative strategy, and message.
The most important development this year wasn't the VA and NJ races; it was the Specter switch, and the NY-23 fiasco. The GOP enters the 2010 cycle with a major problem on its hands: the possibility that Republicans are going to give away winnable seats because they can't nominate good candidates (or because good candidates will split conservative votes with third-party campaigns).
On legislative strategy, Republicans could have saved the filibuster for a handful of major issues, certainly including health care and the stimulus bill. But instead, egged on by the talk show crowd, they used it so often (and added so many pointless delaying tactics at the end of the health care debate) that they managed to put the filibuster at risk. The need for Republicans to kowtow to the crazy hurt them all year, most memorably when Grassley and Enzi gave Baucus an excuse to pull the plug on the Gang of Six while blaming Republicans for having no interest in cutting a deal. And, in fact, GOP fear of the crazy prevented Republicans from acting on behalf of GOP-aligned interest groups (a prime example is the doctors, but there have been several cases this year), with potentially devastating consequences is some of those groups re-align to the Democrats.
On message, and granted this is more amorphous than the other two, I do think it was pretty brutal for the Republicans. Take health care. Republicans could have mounted a spirited defense of small government, and talked about why government just shouldn't be involved in health care. I think that's a losing argument, at least in the short run, but it would have been consistent with party principles. Another option would have been a narrower attack on individual and employer mandates. I don't think it would have been honest to pretend to support the benefits of those mandates (such as eliminating pre-existing conditions), but I think it would have been a highly successful attack, consistent with broader conservative themes, and it might well have badly hurt the bill. Or, Republicans could have made up a bunch of stuff that wasn't true, and combine attacks on those things (which had no effect on the bill, since they didn't exist) with a spirited defense of unlimited Medicare spending. Yes, those attacks did succeed in pushing down support for the bill in polling (or at least didn't prevent it), but I agree with Mellman's memo -- the top-line numbers severely underestimate the bill's popularity. And why not? Seniors, polling tells us, hate this bill, and that's not surprising since the GOP has highlighted Medicare cuts. But when the only change Medicare recipients notice is the partial or complete closing of the doughnut hole, it's unlikely they'll remain opposed to the change.
Bottom line: this was a year in which Republicans couldn't figure out how to deal with their base, and their base mutated from strident to crazy. It's bad to get pushed around by Rush, who at least has a fairly consistent, mostly conservative agenda; it's much worse to get pushed around by Beck, who appears to be fairly unpredictable. It's bad to have your party's organizational energy devoted to extremist conservative groups; it's worse to have that energy in the Tea Parties. It's bad to have John McCain as your leader; it's must worse to have Sarah Palin.