A re Democrats about to buy a political pig in a poke? When it comes to the Oc- cupy Wall Street movement, some appear to be leaning that way. Aside from pro- found substantive differences with the conservative Tea Party, there also are ones entailing great political risk. When the Occupy Wall Street movement began recently, it must have seemed only fair to Democrats that a break finally was coming their way. Little has gone right for them since they seized Washington’s big prizes in 2008. The economy remains poor, the federal deficit historically high, and their signature accomplishment, health care reform, remains unpopular. They suffered deep losses in the 2010 elections, and their candidate, who won with the largest popular-vote percentage of any Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, has approval ratings in the low 40s.
Then along comes what appears to be a popular movement offering the enthusiasm and supporters the Democrats have lacked for three years. Why shouldn’t they see Occupy Wall Street as the liberal counterpart to the conservative Tea Party? Because it’s not.
Certainly, there are tantalizing similarities between the two. Both are spontaneous, vocal, public protest movements. However, the similarities are superficial. There are important differences of style that Democrats need to heed.
If the Tea Party takes as its progenitor the American Revolution’s anti-tax Boston Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street takes its parentage from the 1960s sit-ins of the left. The Tea Party rallies and disperses. Occupy Wall Street is staying put - seemingly indefinitely.
These differences of form underlie profound differences of substance. The Tea Party protesters aim to retain more of what they earn. Occupy Wall Street aims to redistribute more of what others earn. The Tea Party wants to reduce government; Occupy Wall Street wants to grow it.
However, the most important difference for Democrats between the two movements is in political risk. Occupy Wall Street’s sit-ins offer a prolonged and growing opportunity for confrontation with civil authority.
Eventually, even the most tolerant of municipalities have to reclaim their public space, as New York City and other cities have just done. As they do, confrontations break out. Public conflict does not make good politics - just remember the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Occupy Wall Street’s redistributionist message also is a worry. Such a message has never been a prevailing one in America. Even during the Depression’s depths, groups proclaiming such a message weren’t predominant. Why is now different? And when it comes to whether the government should increase spending or decrease the deficit, the latter wins out. In fact, President Obama’s lowest approval ratings have come on his handling of the deficit.
Yet for Democrats, the most important difference in political risk between the two movements comes in the timing of Occupy Wall Street.
Republicans have had almost three years to get to know the Tea Party, begun early in 2009. Even during this cynicism-laden period, the Tea Party has held up well. According to an ABC-Washington Post poll released Nov. 9, 43 percent of respondents indicated support for it - a level that has held relatively steady since April. In contrast, though just born, Occupy Wall Street had a support level of just 44 percent. There is a real question whether support for the occupiers can hold steady over time.
More important for Republicans, they have had two significant elections - first in 2009 and then in the 2010 congressional midterms - with the Tea Party. If either had gone badly, Republicans could have broken with the Tea Party well ahead of 2012.
Occupy Wall Street is a comparative neophyte. It has not had time to demonstrate staying power or opportunity to demonstrate electoral clout. Thus far, it has only demonstrated an ability to gain attention, and it is debatable whether that attention has served it particularly well.
Republicans got ample time to road-test their racer. It has a proven track record - performing well in its 2009 and 2010 races. Democrats are kicking the tires on something that has never left the garage. What’s more, they are considering racing it in the Grand Prix - without knowing how it will perform or whether they can handle it.
Stuck in their doldrums, Democrats looking longingly at Occupy Wall Street should have two words on their minds. However, those two words should not be “Tea Party,” but “caveat emptor” - buyer beware. There are multiple warning signs that Occupy Wall Street is not the Tea Party - in shape or substance - and may carry risk without reward.
When it comes to Occupy Wall Street, Democrats still may not have caught a break. If mishandled, the movement could prove to be as bad a political break as the economic one they have been fighting for three years. Only this one could be entirely their fault.
J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.
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