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The Democrats' Goldwater moment

The Democratic brand has become the Arby's or K-Mart of American politics. It's time for a re-invention.

They don't call Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul "the most interesting man" in American politics for nothing. Shortly before yesterday's election, Paul spouted off on the Republican "brand"; he said, flatly, that for many voters it "sucks." And in a sense, he surely was right. The GOP brand name is toxic to large segments of the American electorate -- Latinos who feel beat up by the immigration hawks, or blacks who feel marginalized by new laws that restrict voting, not to mention that long-time favorite of Attytood commenters, "the war on women." It's why the party has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections -- you know, the ones where they can't draw up districts that look like Rorschach tests -- and is still the White House underdog in 2016, at least if Hillary Clinton runs.

But if the Republican brand "sucks," where does one begin with the Democratic brand? Is it Arby's? K-Mart? Have they become the Microsoft Zune of 2010s politics? Because make no mistake, what happened last night was a massive repudiation of the Democratic Party and especially the party brand. It was no surprise that Republicans solidly re-took control of the Senate, in a year where the map was stacked toward red states, with a bunch of seats that the Dems probably had no right holding in the first place. But what was shocking was losing governor's races in solid-blue, progressive-minded states like Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois. Indeed, can you name one race where a Democrat exceeded the pre-election expectations, or pulled a true upset? If 2010 was a "shellacking," this was about five or six heavy coats of varnish.

I won't rehash my piece from the other day, other than to summarize that disingenuous and often dishonest Republican candidates, a broken system that allows billionaires and their pet corporations to control the message and set the agenda, and voter apathy all went into last night's GOP landslide. You could say -- and President Obama alluded to this today -- that the election was really decided by the two-thirds of American adults that stayed home, or cling to the fact that 37 percent of midterm voters were over age 60 (!). But that's why they play the game -- you have to win with the electorate you have. By any standard, the Democrats and their leader, Obama, were a miserable failure. People have no idea what the Democrats or Obama stand for these days. I sure don't.

Part of the problem in politics is that everyone thinks they can turn it around in the next cycle. That's kind of why the national Democratic Party has been regularly whoring itself out to Wall Street and big business the last couple of decades -- addicts turning political tricks to make it to the next big-money Election Day. Unfortunately, Democratic leaders may not accept the message from last night on just how K-Mart-y their political brand has become. They'll look at Hillary and a much more favorable Senate map in 2016 and not make fundamental changes. That's a shame --  because the rock bottom of 2014 would have been the perfect time to start building a Democratic Party that would actually meet the needs of a disillusioned majority.

I think about Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and the presidential election of exactly 50 years ago, in 1964. You want to talk about a shellacking! Goldwater, the Republican nominee who said famously that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice," got just 38.5 percent of the popular vote, the biggest loss by that measure in American history, to this day. The pundits went wild, suggesting it would take decades for the GOP and its image to recover. Instead, the party went on to win five of the next six presidential elections, four of them by the two chaps pictured with Goldwater at top.

The GOP slowly gained an era of dominance by ignoring what most of the pundits told it to do, which was to move toward the center-left and be more like the dominant Democrats of the Kennedy-LBJ era. Instead, the party, especially in the slow rise of Reagan, made its message more conservative, but also simpler. They created a conservative brand that stood for something, with a simple creed. They spent years building a network of think tanks and right-wing media (the modern Democrats have mimicked this, of course, but funding them from Wall Street and rich folks has arguably diluted their brand, not strengthened it.)

It helped to have a Great Communicator in Ronald Reagan, who made the transition from Hollywood to national politics by speaking out for Goldwater in that '64 race. Everyone knew what Reagan stood for: Lower taxes, less government, and an unrepentant Cold Warrior -- even if his actual policies in the White House were sometimes the exact opposite. But what if the 2014 debacle inspired the Democrats to develop a brand that addressed the needs of today's voter -- and they backed it up?

The one thing that I think everyone can agree on -- liberal, conservative, or centrist -- is that voters are angry, and with good reason. The American Dream seems farther from most people's grasp than at any time since the Great Depression. Wages for a middle-class worker have been flat for decades, while 95 percent of income gains in the last five years have gone to the top 1 Percent -- the kleptocrats. The vast middle class -- not just blue-collar workers but white-collar professional-types -- see their adult life divided into two phases, trying to save for their kids' astronomical college tuition, and then working until their 70s or 80s because their pension account was robbed blind. These are the kind of problems that voters want fixed -- but they are of no interest to the millionaires and billionaires who fund both parties.

In 2014, the Democrats flubbed a giant opportunity to follow through on their plan to make a higher minimum wage a centerpiece of the campaign; while the party's candidates were losing right and left, voters in five states -- some of them deep Republican red -- voted for a higher minimum wage. Showing that they take the problems of the working poor seriously might begin to do something about those two-thirds of voters who stay home.

But to win, of course, they'll also need to do more to address the needs of folks above the minimum wage. That means talking more about education -- runaway college tuition, slumping and underfunded public schools (and not just in the cities) and the need for more vocational training that matches actual jobs. (And speaking of jobs, why did the Democrats stop talking about extending unemployment benefits, when almost every voter has friends or family who've been without work for months or years?) Look at the remarkably simple stance of the only Democrat who ousted a big-deal Republican, Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Tom Wolf. Tax oil-and-gas companies. Fund schools. Pretty basic stuff.

Imagine a party that sold itself as the party of knowledge, and that embraced science -- including climate science -- instead of running from it.  In both referenda and in exit polls on Tuesday, the exact same voters who established GOP congressional hegemony also endorsed policies from closing the gun-show loophole to stricter regulation of natural gas drilling to sensible immigration reform -- the things that only got lip-service, if that, from the Democrats on the ballot.

It's not a matter of moving further to the left, not really. It's just a question of standing up for the forward-looking and mostly progressive platform bullet points that you already have. Because the problem, Democrats, is not with what you believe, but that people don't believe that YOU believe in what you say you believe. In fact, they flat out don't believe you, not right now. And that lost trust isn't something you can't win back overnight. Goldwater, Reagan, and the Republicans didn't get a majority to trust them right away, either.

But for the patient, the long-term opportunity is there -- to make it clear that Democrats are the party of opportunity, of fairness, of knowledge and learning, a party that won't quit until the American Dream is restored. A changed brand we can believe in.