There's an old saying in football: "There are only two types of coaches--coaches who have been fired, and coaches who are going to be fired." Even the greats run out of steam at some point--Woody Hayes, famously, but seemingly not JoePa? Joe Gibbs certainly--the game had left him behind.
But most coaches who get fired (and I'll expand this to other sports) get fired for things beyond their control. A coach takes over a bad franchise (say, hypothetically, the Lions
) and continues to lose. A coach has some success with one roster but players age, move on as free agents, and he has less success with different players. A "genius" coach designs a new system but other coaches catch up and learn to defense the system, bringing the genius back to earth.
So we can talk a lot about why a coach "deserves" to get fired (Jim Zorn? Norv Turner?), but at a certain level there is no desert. Coaches have success, often for reasons beyond their control. Coaches suffer failures, ditto. Coaches can make a difference, but my guess is that coaching is less important than other factors, most of the time.
Look at the long list of great coaches who have failed with a second (or third) team: Ditka in New Orleans, Gibbs in Washington (Part II), Spurrier with the Redskins and in South Carolina. It's the rare coach who wins and wins and wins, even after changing locale. And that coach usually, but not always, has great players when he wins in the second or third place. Note that the "genius" of New England had little success with the Browns.
I think that there's an analogy to political parties here. A political party can win an election for reasons beyond its control. A political party can lose an election for reasons beyond its control. Sure, things the parties do matter. Ideas can matter. But like coaching, party leaders have limited control over events. Ideas rarely determine the outcomes.
I've been thinking a lot lately about the efforts to reinvigorate the Republican party, either as a party of ideas or as a party that speaks to middle- and lower-class voters on bread-and-butter issues. And I have to say that I'm skeptical. Skeptical that the ideas ever mattered that much, and skeptical that ideas and/or policy positions really matter, that much.
The GOP won in 1980 because things had gone very poorly for the US of A in the years preceding the election. It wasn't like the Democrats or Carter had much to do with that. Paul Volker probably had more effect on the economy than Carter, and the policies from the Johnson and Nixon administrations left the country in a rough patch. It's unlikely Carter could have stopped the Iranian revolution, and the seizure of the hostages, well, game over for the incumbent party.
I heard Douthat on NewsHour say that Carter had failed to cope with the economic crisis yadda yadda, no mention of the hostage crisis. Boy, he's young and stoopid.
Reagan won in 1980, but if George H.W. Bush would have won the nomination in 1980, he would have won the 1980 general election.
The GOP won in the congressional elections in 1994 because Southern conservative districts finally voted the way they should have been doing for decades. It wasn't the Contract with America!
I would say something similar about 2008. Did the Republicans really lose because they had no policy agenda? Or did they lose because they were the party in power during a financial crisis, a housing crisis, etc.? I doubt that Obama's policy proposals had much affect. In a very real sense, the GOP was in the situation of the coach who has run the same system for thirty years (sound like anyone?) but suffers some key injuries and faces other teams on an up-swing. Their luck had run out.
Around the blogosphere, we like to analyze and over-analyze these things (i.e., elections). But I'm not convinced that we don't over think them.
Now, of course many of the folks talking about reinvigorating the party have a motive for doing so--they want the reinvigorated party to adopt their ideas
. But I would really like to see a discussion of how much any of that really matters in winning elections.