Democrats Wonder What to Do About Occupy Wall Street

The Occupy Wall Street movement is growing, and with it a national fervor increasingly backed by progressive base groups.

Regardless of where it shakes out in the end, the left—right now—is pretty darn fired up. So what's a Democrat to do? Publicly, Democratic leaders have offered degrees of cautious interest in the movement, but mostly steered clear of getting too close.

"Obviously I've heard of it," President Obama said in his Thursday press conference. "I've seen it on television."

But a TV screen is about as close as Obama got:

I think it expressed the frustrations that the American people feel that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout he country, all across Main Street, and yet you're still seeing some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on abusive practices that got us into this problem in the first place. So yes I think people are frustrated and the protestors are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works.

Vice President Biden offered a similar take. "Do you stand in solidarity" with the movement, Biden was asked Thursday, as picked up by Dave Weigel.

"Let's be honest with one another. What is the core of that protest? The core is: The bargain has been breached," Biden said. "Look, there's a lot in common with the Tea Party. The Tea Party started, why? TARP. They thought it was unfair."

So basically your classic non-answer-answer. Obama and Biden aren't on board, but they're not not on board either.

Waiting And Hoping

TPM spoke to a slew of Democratic operatives across DC Wednesday and Thursday and found an even more cautious approach toward the growing movement. (They all agreed to speak anonymously as is the custom in DC when reporters try to push past talking points.) Some operatives seemed thrilled at the possibilities - liberal tea party! - but all said it's way to early to tell whether this is something Democrats want to engage directly.

"The original piece of the tea party that did pick up support among independent voters was when they were taking on Wall St. born out of the bailout and reaction to Bush in 2008," said one, referring to the earliest days of what became the tea party. "If Democrats and progressives are to reclaim independent voters than standing up for working class voters is a key part of that."

"In 2010, Democratic base was lackluster and that's one of the reasons GOP had as big a night as they did," the operative continued. "Anything that reenergizes Democratic base is vital."

Another was less sure about what was going on. "I don't have a clear idea of what it is," the source said. "I do notice that the right-wing is already in full attack mode."

The operative said Democrats "are really focusing on DC right now," meaning the fight for Obama's jobs bill - which of course the progressive groups like labor streaming to back Occupy Wall Street say is a clear parallel with the goals of the protesters now setting up in cities across the country.

Democrats certainly see overlaps with their agenda and Occupy Wall Street.

"Certainly there is political energy behind it that should find sympathy, both us towards them and them towards us, in our common goals," one Democratic official said. "The truth of the matter is the sentiment being reflected there is exactly the sentiment - or very similar - that the president is expressing on the campaign trail: we have to have rules of the road, we cant go back to doing things the way we did, and everyone has to pay their fair share." There's a meeting of the minds, so to speak," the source said.

Risky Business

There are several drawbacks to engaging with Occupy Wall Street, the Democratic sources said. One is the movement could blow up in everyone's face, embarrassing all involved. Another is it fades as quickly and mostly mysteriously as it appeared, making it little more than several cable news cycles in the long run.

"I was thinking about this this morning-the local Fox affiliate had some guy from the ‘movement' on to talk about it," one operative said, "and his rhetoric was strongly reminiscent of the tea party, to my ear. Different goals, obviously, and the rhetoric was less, um, violent and vitriolic. But the same dissatisfaction with the current ‘system' is there."

"[So] this could end up being good for Dems the way the tea party was good for Republicans," the operative said. "Or it could end up scaring the crap out of folks."

One of the other Democrats pointed out that the whole tea party thing isn't all wine and roses for the GOP. Polls have shown public support for the movement has tanked, and it's not like the Republicans in Congress who tied themselves to the tea party are doing much better.

"Why would anyone want to be compared to the tea party?" the Democrat said. "Sounds like an insult to me."

There is another potential pitfall, TPM was told: If Democrats directly engage with the movement, they could delegitmize it just as it's getting rolling. One Democratic official suggested that lawmakers might exercise caution, not out of fear that they'll be tainted by Occupy Wall Street's less polished traits, but out of concern that they'll undermine the movement's grassroots energy with direct endorsements.

"There's more guarantee of its success as a movement if it's independent from the back and forth political machinations of the campaign trail or Washington," they said.

Outside The Bubble, Sort Of

What's the view of protesters actually filling the streets as part of Occupy Wall Street's growing momentum? TPM ventured out into the DC version of the protest Thursday to find out what actual participants think of Democrats getting involved in the movement and Obama's words about it.

"I'd like to see people of all parties and people who've abandoned the idea of a political process embrace this," said protester Tom Casey. "I have Republican friends who are here."

But Casey wasn't exactly looking for Obama to lead the charge. "At this point I've given up hope on the President of hope," Casey said. "I think he lied to us."

Like the early days of the tea party, many of the protesters were not so interested in partisan politics from any side. "I haven't really paid attention to [politicians'] reaction, and to be honest with you I really don't care," said Milton Espinota, a protester down from New York. "I think ultimately this movement will have to spur something that will make them change, and what will make them change is by getting money out of politics."

Not exactly the first two names you'd seek out for a potential Democratic campaign volunteer list. But a progressive strategist told TPM that it's the (politically at least) unfocused nature of the Occupy Wall Street movement that makes it a positive for those trying to elect more Democrats.

"You don't need to know any more after you hear the name, you know everything," he said. "From a branding perspective it's an epic win: the demands are implicit. Everyone in America knows Wall Street is the enemy. They may not be able to articulate demands, but they know it's the enemy."

Ryan J. Reilly contributed reporting from Occupy DC.


Democrats Wonder What to Do About Occupy Wall StreetRepublished with permission from TalkingPointsMemo.com. Authored by Benjy Sarlin and Evan McMorris-Santoro. Photo via AP. TPM provides breaking news, investigative reporting and smart analysis of politics.