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.”