Why Occupy Wall Street and Democratic pols aren't exactly pals

A month into the Occupy Wall Street protests, the Democratic Party's embrace of the movement can best be described as friendly, but loose. Both sides, it turns out, are wary of a close alliance.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
An Occupy Wall Street campaign demonstrator holds a placard in Zuccotti Park, near Wall Street in New York on Monday.

After a month of camping out in Zuccotti Park in the financial district, the Occupy Wall Street protesters are confronted by the same stubborn challenge that has dogged them since Day 1: Can they transition their disparate demands into an element for actual political change – much like the tea party has done?

So far, the Democratic Party’s embrace of the Occupy movement can best be described as friendly, but loose. Many in the party, including President Obama, are mostly just shouting encouragement from the sidelines and still trying to figure whether they can use the group to their advantage next year.

“Obama wants to benefit from the energy in the movement without getting stuck in its entrails,” says Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia.

The risk for the Democrats, says Mr. Sabato, is that they don’t know where the Occupy movement is going. “If you embrace it, you might inherit violence if it occurs and some kooky spinoffs when they occur,” he explains.

For example, he says some of the protesters “make perfect sense” when they talk about how upset they are with Wall Street and the banks. However, he says, at the same time there is an “anarchical element embracing every cause under the sun from antinuclear protesters to people who think Israel is the devil.”

On its website, the group says it is fighting against “the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations.”

The group itself does not have a single spokesperson but has set up a “PR and Media Working Group” to try to answer journalists’ questions. Sometimes there are no answers.

“We keep getting pounded by people asking what are our demands,” says Bill Dobbs, a member of the media working group. “That’s taken every ounce of our energy.”

Another member of the media group, Karanja Gacuca, says the participants would definitely like to see some positive results from the protests. “Perhaps some policy or actual platform,” says Mr. Gacuca, who used to work on Wall Street himself.

He admits that it could be a challenge to get legislation passed in Washington since he says the group is hesitant to be affiliated with any politician.

At the same, Mr. Dobbs says the group also does not want to set up an office in Washington. “They are eager not to get bogged down in lobbying,” says Dobbs.

Dobbs thinks the group has engendered a debate that has even resonated at times on Wall Street. “I’ve read where some hedge fund managers have said some of the criticisms of Wall Street are on target,” he says. “Maybe that’s the first step in getting them to budge.”

Political analyst Doug Muzzio of Baruch College says the Occupy Wall Street protesters remind him of the early protesters of the Vietnam War. “In 1965 those people who were demonstrating were seen as outliers,” he says. “But, as their movement grew it had a profound effect.”

The organizers themselves like to compare themselves to the Arab spring uprisings, especially in Egypt where protesters spent weeks camped out in Tahrir Square and eventually brought down the Egyptian government. In the United States they are trying to effect change, they say, through “people power,” such as the encampment or various protest marches.

Many members of Congress from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party have had no problem piling on Wall Street. The Congressional Progressive Caucus said it shared the frustration of the protesters over the toll it says an “unchecked Wall Street has taken on the overwhelming majority of Americans.”

One of the strongest anti-Wall Street statements has come from House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who said on Oct. 6, “The message of the American people is that no longer will the recklessness of some on Wall Street cause massive joblessness on Main Street.”

However, other Democrats, especially those from New York, have been particularly careful about their comments, since Wall Street investment bankers contribute significantly to reelections campaigns. For example, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, who has received money from Wall Street interests, has issued 30 press releases so far in October, but not one of them talked about Occupy Wall Street.

While there is certainly discontent with with Wall Street, there is even more with Washington. On Monday, the Hill, a Washington publication, released a poll of who is to blame for the nation’s economic woes. It found that 56 percent of likely voters blamed Washington compared with 35 percent who blamed Wall Street.

“Unless politicians can ultimately shift that opinion, ultimately Washington takes the bulk of the hit,” says Ron Faucheux, head of the Clarus Research Group, a nonpartisan opinion polling firm in Washington.

“It does not mean there is not a Wall Street issue there to exploit, but instinctively people think Washington is more responsible.”

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