Some will say at this point: But wait. When conservatives were at the bottom of the well, they didn't spend a lot of time engaged in namby-pamby navel-gazing. They went out and said what they believed, repeatedly, loudly, unapologetically. And they won. And, therefore, that's what our side needs to do now.
There's some justification for this point of view; certainly, one of the Democratic Party's biggest problems these days is that people don't know what they stand for, and just standing for something -- anything! -- is better than always appearing to be backtracking, soft-pedaling, trying to prove they're just as tough or patriotic as Republicans. It's a pathetic thing to watch. And here's one point on which I want to be very clear: Self-examination does not mean inevitably moving to the middle. Adopting a centrist pose can be every bit as knee-jerk and shallow as insisting that nothing's changed since 1974, and it can be even more debilitating politically than going (or staying) left.
But the historical analogy to the 1960s conservatives breaks down here. In 1964, conservatism was not in the position that liberalism is in today. Conservatism at that point had never been the country's reigning ideology for a long period of time. Of course, the America of the 1920s, and of the 19th century, was a very conservative country by today's standards. But in those days, conservatism wasn't yet an ideology in the way it became in the 1950s, under the leadership of people like William F. Buckley Jr. and others. Movement conservatism of the sort that nominated Barry Goldwater and elected Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush didn't really exist until the postwar period.
In other words, the conservatives of the 1960s had never been in power. So they didn't have a legacy to contemplate, because they hadn't been in the position to make one.
Liberalism, though, has been in power, and for a good long time -- from 1933 to 1980, generally speaking (Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon weren't movement conservatives). And as we know all too well, conservatives have spent probably hundreds of millions of dollars discrediting it, and it's worked pretty well: In the 1960s, about 40 percent of Americans were willing to call themselves "liberal," and today the number is half that (I'm sometimes amazed, and gratified, that it's still even that high).
And so, our side ran things in this country more or less for decades (and then again, of course, during Bill Clinton's presidency; obviously, he wasn't really a liberal in the old sense, but if you parse his administration's record item by item, it was much more liberal than not). So, unlike the conservatives of the 1960s, our side has had real power, and hence we have a track record.