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Politics / POLITICS

Occupy Wall Street: The Democrats' Tea Party?

For President Obama and his party, anti-Wall Street protests present an opportunity—and a dilemma.

The Occupy Wall Street movement that started in New York City spread to Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.(Chet Susslin)

photo of Jim O'Sullivan
October 6, 2011

As President Obama held forth at a White House press conference on Thursday, demonstrators were gathered a few blocks away under the same flag of exasperation with the nation’s economy he purports to wave. Even so, he didn’t seem especially eager to become the standard bearer of the anti-Wall Street protests now entering their third week.

While acknowledging the protestors’ “frustration about two sets of rules”—one for Wall Street and one for Main Street—the president quickly used that frustration as a pivot point to one of his own favorite talking points: an attack on Republican presidential candidates’ opposition to the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law.

It was a long way from endorsing the demonstrations.

 

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So far, establishment Democrats are treating the anticorporate protests, which came to Washington on Thursday, the way concerned but tolerant parents might handle a rambunctious teenager who dyes his hair and undergoes unlikely piercings: with vague empathy but an overt lack of engagement.

Some in the party see the gathering “frustration” as a natural rallying point for the party: hostility to the corporate titans who grew fat during the Bush administration before bellying the economy off a cliff. Former Sen. Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat, has heartily endorsed the protests as a more powerful, progressive answer to the tea party. So has AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who has seen some of his local union members join the unaffiliated masses in New York. Connecticut Rep. John Larson, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, likened the protests to the grassroots forces that brought revolutionary change to the Arab world earlier this year.

“They’re standing up and saying the things they feel deep inside that are working unjustly and unfairly against them,” Larson told The Daily Caller. “It’s not only an ‘Arab Spring,’ but there is an ‘American Fall’ as well.”

Others are less sanguine about hitching up with a seemingly unknowable ally.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has said he welcomes the progressive energy, but said it was “going to get dissipated real fast” without some sort of constructive channeling. Sens. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., used the same word—“frustrated”—to sympathize with the protestors. But they were noncommittal when asked if they endorsed their methods.

“I have no opinion, really,” said Murray, who heads her party’s Senate campaign. Asked what she thinks of the protests, Hagan shrugged. “It’s a democracy,” was all she would allow.

For the protestors, alliance with the Democratic establishment would provide a motley crew that has been long on pageantry some political potency, just as the GOP’s embrace of the tea party movement turned a clamorous and diffuse reaction to the Obama health care bill into an influential political force. But it would also strip the Occupy Wall Street forces of some of their sense of romance—a not-to-be-taken-lightly source of appeal for many of those drawn to such demonstrations. It’s hard to feel revolutionary when you’re acting with the official sanction of the DSCC.

To be fair, much of the Democratic tepidity about embracing the movement stems from its very diffuseness: Even organizers of the demonstrations proudly proclaim their “leaderless” nature. And the danger for any establishment Democrats is that the crowds gathering on the streets amount to an uncontrolled substance with unpredictable effects.

In the crowds milling about Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington, it was hard to discern a specific grievance or a single focus.

“The point of today is to get together and stand up,” Valerie Kiebala, an American University freshman who said she heard about the protests on campus. “Once we all stand together and are united as a people, we can then figure out our goals.”

Sometimes multiple causes could be found in a single demonstrator. Derenda Campbell, 43, said she drove 22 hours from East Hallsville, Texas, and reported that she had "just found out the Federal Reserve is unconstitutional."

The Code Pink activist brought a sleeping bag, food, water, and an umbrella and wasn't planning on leaving. "The Federal Reserve should be abolished," she said. "But my biggest goal is to stop the wars."

Historically, ground-up movements are slow to draw the affections of the major political parties: Think the civil-rights movement and Kennedy White House, the antiwar movement and Johnson White House, the tea party and congressional Republicans. Eventually, however, in all three cases, those movements came to redefine the parties with which they were nearest—and American politics, in general.

Until some sort of structure is imposed on the amorphous passions of the anti-Wall Street outpourings, establishment Democrats will have to weigh the benefits of signing up against the risks aligning with the freeform movement.

“One of the pitfalls is that it’s a largely unorganized group with little apparent direction or organization, except for railing against Wall Street. You don’t know whether it’s going to spin out of control,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “They appear to be onto something and are harnessing a lot of concern that out there. But to date, the goals—by some of the participants themselves—are largely undefined. I think folks are a little unsure of where this thing’s going, and how they’re going to get there.”

Sara Sorcher contributed

WATCH Jon Stewart argue that the Wall Street demonstrators are like the tea party:

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