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The Daily Need

Caught off guard, Republican leaders offer mixed messages on Occupy Wall Street protests

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor answers questions from reporters on President Obama's jobs bill, debt reduction and the economy, Monday, Oct. 3, 2011, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

For a brief moment last week, it seemed as though the Republican Party had finally awoken to the seismic political rumblings set off by the Occupy Wall Street movement. First, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of the most popular figures in the GOP, said he “understood” the anger and frustration fueling the Occupy protests. Then, Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul said in a debate that the grievances of middle class Americans who “got stuck” when the financial bubble burst deserved to be acknowledged. Then, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who had earlier derided the protesters as “mobs,” scheduled an address at the Wharton School of Business on an unlikely subject: the growing wealth disparity between the rich and the poor.

News of Cantor’s address shook the GOP establishment: The man who had staked out perhaps the most antagonistic approach to the Occupy Wall Street protests had decided to discuss at length a topic that, until hundreds of protesters began camping out in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, had been all but ignored by Republican leaders. Cantor’s announcement seemed an unmistakable sign that the Occupy Wall Street protests had finally entered the Republican consciousness, and that, moreover, Republican leaders seemed intent on avoiding the mistakes of the Democrats, who for too long ignored or dismissed the obvious political power of the tea party when it first emerged on the scene.

Then, Cantor canceled. Protesters affiliated with the “Occupy Philadelphia” movement had camped out outside the hall where Cantor was scheduled to speak, intending to confront the congressman. When Cantor learned that the speech would be open to the public, he withdrew. As it turned out, he had no intention of engaging with the Occupy protesters at all. “There are politicians and others who want to demonize people that have earned success in certain sectors of our society,” Cantor had planned to say, according to his prepared remarks. “They claim that these people have now made enough, and haven’t paid their fair share. But, pitting Americans against one another tends to deflate the aspirational spirit of our people and fade the American dream.”

Cantor’s apparent reluctance to engage with the Occupy Wall Street movement or, more importantly, the issue at its core — the growing wealth disparity between the rich and the poor — lays bare a dilemma for the Republican Party as it seeks to capitalize on widespread economic despair in the next election. Until now, Republicans have somewhat successfully focused all of their ire on President Obama, and on the dysfunction of the government more broadly. The problem with the economy, they say, is not a lack of consumer demand or a structural deficiency in the labor market — it’s government overreach, mountains of public debt and burdensome regulations that stifle innovation. Republican presidential candidates have hewed closely to that line, painting President Obama as the sole cause of the economy’s woes.

Until now, that rhetoric has worked. President Obama’s job approval ratings, especially on economic matters, are at their lowest in his presidency. Voters are hungry for a new set of solutions. Attacking government, always an easy task in a center-right country that prizes self-sufficiency over collective decision-making, has been nearly effortless for the Republican seeking to challenge Obama. For the most part, voters were dissatisfied with the president’s performance, so it was easy to blame him for the torpid recovery.

Now, however, the Occupy Wall Street movement has shined a light on an entirely different set of malefactors: Bankers and their patrons in Washington, D.C. And if government proved a popular target for Americans’ ire, bankers have turned out to be even easier to revile. Polls suggest that Americans support the goals of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, or at least identify with their anger. And it’s not just a matter of who the movement blames for the state of the economy. Just months ago, most of the energy in national politics was focused on government debt and spending levels. Occupy Wall Street seems to have achieved something the Obama administration could not: Shifting the conversation from deficits to economic fairness.

That shift has, perhaps for the first time in the nascent presidential campaign, put the Republican candidates back on their heels. With the exception of foreign policy, the Republicans have been unified in most of their attacks on the administration. But with Occupy Wall Street, they’ve been uncertain. Their responses to the Occupy movement have run the gamut, from Herman Cain suggesting that the protesters are “anti-American” to Mitt Romney calling them “dangerous” to Rick Santorum dismissing them as a “fringe group.” Just as quickly, though, the candidates have reversed course. Romney later said, “I worry about the 99 percent. I understand how those people feel.” And Santorum admitted, “I understand the motivation behind the protests.”

If, as many observers have noted, Occupy Wall Street and the tea party are merely two sides of the same coin, it would seem prudent for the Republicans to acknowledge the anger fueling the protests, even if they disagree with the movement’s prescriptions. Christie, the Republican icon, did just that, saying in a radio interview last week that both Occupy Wall Street and the tea party are “an outgrowth of a big concern about the dysfunction of our government, the inability to get anything done.” Other Republican leaders, however, have taken a less conciliatory approach. Newt Gingrich dismissed the Occupy Wall Street movement as misguided, calling the protesters a “natural outcome of a bad education system teaching them really dumb ideas.”

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  • george

    the occupy wall street protesters seem largely to be suggesting that socialism would fix the problems in our counrty. It has been applications of socialism that have caused the problems. Some of these include the federal reserve, the unconstitutional 16th and 17th amendments to the constitution, the unconstitutional community reinvestment act of 1977, the partial repeal of the glass-stegall act, social security, medicare and medicaid, welfare, fannie may and freddie mack, just to name a few. these socialist systems are unconstitutional. these protesters are protesting against victims of over-government regulation. it is important to remember that the nazis were socialists and they successfully convinced the germans that the cause of germany’s bad economy was that the rich jews were not lending their money that  the germans needed to create jobs.

  • Littr004

    Unbridled capitalism has been given a free ride for too long now.  Socialism is casually equated with nazism.  How about fascism , which is the collusion of government and corporations?  Oh those Nazis, how they have confused us!

  • Skip Henderson

    When the party of grandness decides you are a nutcase, then just stop voting for them. One day they’ll wake up and do the math and realize they can’t win re-election with 1%.

  • Skip Henderson

    This is what happens when you pull the rug out from kids who’ve done nothing but work hard for their education and play by the rules only to be rewarded with a mountain of debt and unemployment. Tax breaks and free trade are killing the American dream. Socialism is just the dressing the thieves are spreading on the manure you’re shoveling for them.

  • Lev

    “the unconstitutional 16th and 17th amendments to the constitution”

    An amendment to the constitution, by definition, can’t be unconstitutional.  If you have a problem with income taxes or direct election of senators that’s fine, but don’t misrepresent the facts.

  • Arian

    corruption is ewrywer iven  the IRS evry dollar they collect 50% go in their poket and not to the govermant(so caled 50-50) wake up and do the math

  • John Ross

    Are any of the demonstrators advocating socialism? Not likely since it has failed in every nation that tried it. Democratic reform is what we need so desperately as the gap between rich and poor widens every day. 

  • Anonymous

    A rising tide lifts all boats, eh? The 99% are being scuttled.

    Are those MASSIVE AGRICULTURE SUBSIDIES to force Mexicans to migrate to maquiladoras and American farms “free trade”?

    Are China’s State Owned Factories and Wall St. corporate complicity in that dictatorship “free trade”?

    about PetroCaribe, and U.S.A.I.D, Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, Levi, et al,  and why Bill Clinton apologizes for our trade with Haiti.

    Read  how Monsanto, with U.S. government help, strong arms  countries all over the world

    Then you’ll begin to understand know how “free trade” REALLY works.

  • Anonymous

    Nice try. Krugman, Sanders, Stiglitz, Amy Goodman, Noam Chomsky, Robert Reich, Bob Dylan, etc, and one of the greatest mensches of all time, Aaron Feurstein, owner of Malden Mills, even David Stockman, Reagan’s OMB director are on OUR side!

  • Anonymous

    Nice try. Krugman, Sanders, Stiglitz, Amy Goodman, Noam Chomsky, Robert
    Reich, Bob Dylan, etc, and one of the greatest mensches of all time,
    Aaron Feurstein, owner of Malden Mills, even David Stockman, Reagan’s
    OMB director are on OUR side!

  • Anonymous

    Aryan, didn’t my uncle kick your uncle’s ass at the Battle of the Bulge?

  • gramps

    Yea, and what we need more in the world is G.Gordon Liddy, tricky Dick Nixon, Mitchel, Chaney, Haldermen…..Reagan, Olie North and of course the big prize..GW’a 

  • Jim A. watson

    RE: Gingrich
    That is the second weakest form of argument, attacking the qualification of your opponent to even put forth an argument i.e. calling the protesters a “natural outcome of a bad education system teaching them really dumb ideas.” 
     The weakest form is to say “na na nana you are a stupid head” both methods often employed by children and FOX news.

    Republicans that I know personally are looking at their own lives and saying that corporations have too much influence over public policy, and that the debt is a looming problem. They feel they are the 99% as well.  

  • RobertPenske

    My brother who was county chairman for the republican party was let down when Gingrich criticized the president for delaying an effort to help the Libyan revolution, and then a month later complained that helping was a mistake.

  • Phet

    This is why AMERICANS should stand up and SHUT OUT term limits for all REPs. CongressSenat why should they care about our issuesproblems when they can get elected again and now they can get millions of dollers from Corporations. Thanks to our Chief Justice John Glover Roberts, Jr and our Supreme Court morons for allowing this to happen.