Banks protests offer help, and risk, for Democrats

banks-oct-11-3
An Occupy DC camp at Freedom Plaza in Washington. Democratic Party leaders
are hoping they can tap into the discontent
Photo By Karen Bleier

By Eric Lichtblau
The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Leading Democratic figures, including party fund-raisers and a top ally of President Obama, are embracing the spread of the anti-Wall Street protests in a clear sign that members of the Democratic establishment see the movement as a way to align disenchanted Americans with their party.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s powerful House fund-raising arm, is circulating a petition seeking 100,000 party supporters to declare that “I stand with the Occupy Wall Street protests.”

The Center for American Progress, a liberal organization run by John D. Podesta, who helped lead Mr. Obama’s 2008 transition, credits the protests with tapping into pent-up anger over a political system that it says rewards the rich over the working class — a populist theme now being emphasized by the White House and the party. The center has encouraged and sought to help coordinate protests in different cities.

Judd Legum, a spokesman for the center, said that its direct contacts with the protests have been limited, but that “we’ve definitely been publicizing it and supporting it.”

He said Democrats are already looking for ways to mobilize protesters in get-out-the-vote drives for 2012. “What attracts an organization like CAP to this movement is the idea that our country’s economic policies have been focused on the very top and not on the bulk of America,” Mr. Legum added. “That’s a message we certainly agree with.”

But while some Democrats see the movement as providing a political boost, the party’s alignment with the eclectic mix of protesters makes others nervous. They see the prospect of the protesters’ pushing the party dangerously to the left — just as the Tea Party has often pushed Republicans farther to the right and made for intraparty run-ins.

Mr. Obama has spoken sympathetically of the Wall Street protests, saying they reflect “the frustration” that many struggling Americans are feeling. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, have sounded similar themes.

The role of groups like the Democratic campaign committee and Mr. Podesta’s group, sometimes working in recent weeks with labor unions, moves support from talking points to the realm of organizational guidance.

It is not at all clear whether the leaders of the amorphous movement actually want the support of the Democratic establishment, given that some of the protesters’ complaints are directed at the Obama administration. Among their grievances, the protesters say they want to see steps taken to ensure that the rich pay a fairer share of their income in taxes, that banks are held accountable for reckless practices and that more attention is paid to finding jobs for the unemployed.

The movement has chosen not to have a spokesman and did not offer official comment on the Democrats’ attentions. But whether sought or not, the blessing of senior Democrats holds the potential to give the movement added heft in the same way that the role of senior Republicans like the former House leader Dick Armey did for the Tea Party as it grew from an offshoot movement to a much more organized and potent force.

The protests also provide yet another bright dividing line between Democrats and Republicans in Washington — one that seems likely to help shape the competing themes of the 2012 presidential election.

Democrats and Republicans were already largely divided over the Dodd-Frank legislation, which set out hundreds of new restrictions governing the way financial institutions operate and are regulated. But while the regulations were dense and difficult for many Americans to understand, much less seen as a rallying point, the widespread images of the sprawling protests have offered both parties a colorful and powerful symbol around which to frame their perspectives.

Leading Republicans have grown increasingly critical of the protests. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, called the protesters “a growing mob,” and Herman Cain, a Republican presidential candidate, said the protests are the work of “jealous” anti-capitalists.

The Republican National Committee is also eager to use the protests against Mr. Obama.

“The protests began with anger aimed at Wall Street, but the anger is also directed at the failure of leadership in Washington and that starts with the president,” Kristen Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the committee, said Monday.

The protesters “realize that if they want change, the one person most responsible for the status quo and for making change is President Obama,” she said.

While many Democrats have praised the protesters, some officials in the party remain wary of their potential impact — especially if the protests were to turn more disruptive or even violent.

“That’s the danger with something like this — that you go from peaceful protests to throwing trash cans,” said a senior House Democratic official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Sure, there’s been some crazy anarchy stuff, but over all, the Democrats like their message about Wall Street and accountability,” the official said. “It overlaps with our own message.”

Matt Bennett, vice president for Third Way, a Democratic policy institute in Washington that favors a more centrist approach, said he believes the angry and sometimes radical tone of the protests may turn off moderate swing voters who will be critical in the 2012 elections, just as many moderates are put off by the rhetoric of the Tea Party on the right.

Embracing the protests may prove a mistake for Democrats, Mr. Bennett said. “There’s not much upside,” he said, “and there’s a lot of downside.”

Robert Reich, the former labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, wrote in a blog posting Friday that the protesters’ demands on taxes dovetail with Democrats’ themes, but he said the protests should still make the party wary — in part because Democrats rely on Wall Street for significant campaign contributions.

“If Occupy Wall Street coalesces into something like a real movement, the Democratic Party may have more difficulty digesting it than the G.O.P. has had with the Tea Party,” Mr. Reich wrote.

Some Tea Party leaders are already using the headlines generated by the Wall Street protesters to try to appeal for financial help for a national advertising campaign of their own.

In an e-mail sent over the weekend, Todd Cefaratti, representing TeaParty.net, explained the goal of the first television advertisement would be to introduce the face of the Tea Party movement as a “diverse group of everyday Americans who are only special in that they are patriots who want to put our country back on the right track!” He included a link to the ad that is posted on YouTube and already had more than 37,000 views by Monday night.

Mr. Cefaratti dismissed comparisons that some people have been making about the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street group.

Jennifer Preston contributed reporting from New York.

See Related: American Distrust of Banks


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