Republicans Are Split Over How to Catch up to the 21st Century (But Both Sides Have it All Wrong)

As President Obama gears up for a reinauguration that, right up to Election Day, conservatives truly believed would never happen, the right is trying to figure out what went wrong and what can be done to set things right. A schism has emerged between those who think Republicans and conservatives simply need to tweak their messaging (a majority of Republicans believe this) versus those who think the party needs to update its policies (a majority of all Americans agree on this point). Both these factions get find their voice in separate columns from prominent conservatives today.

Jim DeMint, fresh off his resignation from the Senate to take over the Heritage Foundation, plants his flag firmly in the "messaging" camp in a Washington Post op-ed. Meanwhile, Peggy Noonan writes in the Wall Street Journal that Republicans in Congress should raid the Democratic policy chest like seafaring privateers: "Really: It's pirate time."

Both columns, though, demonstrate that the lessons of 2012 have been ill-learned, and the intractability of the problems facing conservatives.

Let's start with DeMint and his missive in support of message tweaks. Here's what DeMint saw in 2012:

Unfortunately, welfare reform and missile defense have something in common beyond Heritage's intellectual paternity. They both have been gutted by President Obama. Always faint-hearted about missile defense, the president in his first year dismantled our programs in Poland and the Czech Republic. He disabled welfare reform last year, when he took away the work requirements that were at the heart of that law's success.

How could the president get away with hobbling two successful programs with barely a peep from the media or backlash from the millions of Americans whose lives are made better and more secure by these initiatives? That's a question and a challenge I take very personally.

DeMint's solution is to do "research" to make sure going forward conservative messaging on topics like missile defense and welfare is more effective. Of course, anyone who paid even casual attention to the 2012 race knows that Mitt Romney's attacked Obama relentlessly-- and falsely -- for "gutting welfare reform," and those attacks were covered extensively by the political press. The problem with the attack (which originated with Heritage) was that it was over-the-top and wrong, and undermined by the fact that Republican governors wereembracing the welfare policies Romney was attacking.

And really, the welfare attack was effective insomuch as it achieved its purpose: stoking racial resentmentamong white, blue-collar voters against the president. The problem is that those voters don't make up quite the share of the electorate that they used to. That speaks to a deeper problem within conservative politics that can't be patched over with a little PR.

Meanwhile, at the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan is pushing for much more sweeping changes within Republican politics and writing about pirates:

Now is the time to fight and be fearless, to be surprising, to break out of lockstep, to be the one thing Republicans aren't supposed to be, and that is interesting.

Now's the time to put a dagger 'tween their teeth, wave a sword, grab a rope and swing aboard the enemy's galleon. Take the president's issues, steal them--they never belonged to him, they're yours!

In political terms this means: Reorient yourselves. Declare for Main Street over Wall Street, stand for the little guy against the big interests. And move. Don't wait for the bill, declare the sentiments of your corner..

Really, it's pirate time.

One can glean from Noonan's argument that she's either an incurable optimist with a soft-spot for the dramatic, or she hasn't been paying attention. One of the pirate-time reforms she encourages the GOP to embrace is closing the carried interest loophole, a sneaky bit of tax code that allows investment bankers to tax their wage income at the lower capital-gains rate. It disproportionately favors the wealthy, and Noonan spies an opportunity to seize the populist mantle: "If congressional Republicans care about their party they'll want it to get credit for fairness, as opposed to the usual blame for being lackeys of the rich."

It's not clear what has led her to think that congressional Republicans would have any interest in doing this. Indeed, very recent history would suggest that Republicans aren't at all eager to take up this advice. Look no further than the ridiculous storm and stress over the fiscal cliff, most of which stemmed from a constitutional unwillingness on the part of the House GOP to raise taxes one red cent on the wealthy. When John Boehner proposed his "Plan B" bill to raise tax rates on millionaires, it failed because he couldn't generate enough support from within his own caucus. After the Senate passed the compromise bill raising rates on household incomes exceeding $450,000, it passed the House with only one-third of Republicans voting in favor.

This is the party Noonan thinks would pale at being seen as "lackeys of the rich?" (To be sure, her grasp of the fiscal cliff wrangling hasn't been all that strong.)

But let's assume the improbable and stipulate that Republicans take Noonan's advice and once again bump up taxes on the rich -- what happens then? Well, if we look to recent history again, utter bedlam within the rank-and-file. Last month a group of influential conservative activists wrote an open letter to congressional Republicans exhorting them not to compromise one iota with the Democrats, and threatening that primary challenges await those that do. In that time the Senate GOP did indeed hammer out a compromise on the fiscal cliff with the White House, and now Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is under fire from conservatives over "his capitulation to President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden."

This divide between DeMint and Noonan neatly sums up the quandary conservatives and Republicans find themselves in the moment: they can hold fast to their increasingly unpopular policies and try and message their way back into power, or they can enact policy change and alienate the base. Neither is a particularly appealing choice.


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