[O]ne of the major stories of Obama’s presidency has been the revitalization of conservatism. Within only two years, Republicans have regained control of the House of Representatives through a dramatic midterm election. There are now an abundance of Republicans, some old (Newt Gingrich) and some new (Paul Ryan and Sarah Palin), who are jumping over each other to campaign for president in 2012. Republicans have been able to join hands, despite their differences, by using President Obama as their foil...I'm really not convinced. I don't think a GOP comeback is surprising at all -- yes, the extent of GOP gains in November 2010 were at the high end of the range, but some sort of bounce back was expected, certainly by standard political science models.
It is too easy to say that pundits simply exaggerated the crisis of conservatism. The problems facing the right toward the end of Bush’s presidency were very real and their ability to rebound was not inevitable.
As far as public opinion is concerned, John Sides had an excellent post up recently showing that opinion often moves against policy: that is, when Washington enacts conservative policies, people get more liberal, and vice versa.
The same thing is basically true about election results. Indeed, the most notable thing about unified liberal or conservative control of the presidency and Congress is how rare and brief it's been since the New Deal. Yes, FDR did in fact keep large liberal majorities intact for about six years. But since then, there really haven't been extended periods of either liberal or conservative working majorities in House, Senate, and White House at the same time. Even under unified government (as in 1977-1980 or 2003-2006), majorities have typically been too small to allow either side to enact their core agenda, or at least much of it.
If in fact people did believe that 2008 (and 2004, and 1994, and 1992, and 1980, among others) were going to be different, I'm afraid that a fair amount of the blame should go to the now-rejected theory of "critical elections" and "realignment." Most (but not all) political scientists now, I think, have given up on thinking about party control in that way, but it has shown up and still sometimes appears in the textbooks that we use to teach our Intro to American Politics classes, which means there are a lot of people out there who have Officially Certified Learning that are expecting a critical election one of these years.
Meanwhile, although it's obviously correct that Republicans did very will in 2010, I'm not at all sure that the diagnosis of conservatives that people were making two years ago was very far off. The Republican Party is still unpopular, and at least to my reading conservatives are still far from having a viable policy agenda to meet the major issues of the day -- unlike, say, their agenda in 1980. What pundits missed, perhaps, is that it's very possible for a party to win elections despite all those problems.
At any rate, the point is that it was a mistake in 2008 to believe that there was anything permanent about the Democrats' success, just as it was a mistake in 2004 to believe that there was anything permanent about the Republicans' success. That's just not how American politics works. We have two parties: bad things are going to happen, the in-party is going to be blamed, and the out-party is going to benefit regardless of what it's been up to in the meantime. That dynamic works whether the in-party is actually at fault or not. It even works, as Democrats discovered this year, when the out-party was at least possibly just as guilty of causing the things that people are upset about as the in-party was.
That doesn't mean that politicians can't affect events, which then will affect elections -- just as politicians can even affect election results directly by running good candidates and good campaigns (even if the latter only matters around the margins). So while I'm all for analyzing just why Republicans wound up doing so well in November, and I'm open to the possibility that Congressional strategy or the other things Zelizer identifies were important factors, the real story is that any time someone offers to be that a defeated party will takes years to recover, you want to accept that bet.