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

"Pirate time" and "gutted" welfare: the conservative schism in two columns.

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 were embracing 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."

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