Democrats see minefield in Occupy protests
Although both Democrats and the Occupy protesters have similar views on economic inequality and corporate responsibility, each holds the other at arm's length. There's little benefit to Democrats in opening their arms wide to a scruffy group that has erupted in violence, defied police and shown evidence of drug use while camping in public parks across the country — much as the prospect of such a pairing delights Republicans.
Many protesters, in turn, are contemptuous of Democrats, arguing that both political parties are equally beholden to corporate interests and responsible for enacting policies that have hurt the middle class.
Both sides may be missing an opportunity. Polling shows the public supports the message of the Occupy Wall Street movement even if people have reservations about the encampments themselves. And political observers say Democrats may be missing a chance to reinvigorate their base.
"It's injecting energy and life into progressive ideas and values, and it's showing some weak-kneed Democrats they should be more aggressive on those issues," Steve Rosenthal, a Democratic strategist and longtime labor leader, said. "I don't think it will translate into boots on the ground or a clear organization for the 2012 election, but it will definitely help shape the debate."
Occupy Wall Street hasn't been easy for risk-averse elected officials to endorse.
The movement has lacked leadership and a clear focus, and illegal behavior has turned off some politicians. Mayors, citing concerns over sanitation and public safety, have begun to crack down on the encampments, and police in riot gear have cleared protesters from several cities, including New York, Portland, Ore., and Oakland, Calif.
Republicans have largely dismissed the Occupy Wall Street as a band of anti-capitalist ruffians, while trying to goad Democrats into embracing the movement or answering for its excesses.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has called the movement dangerous class warfare, while Michele Bachmann called the protesters "ignorant" and "disrespectful."
So far, Democrats have tried to have it both ways — embracing the movement's economic concerns while steering clear of its rougher edges.
"I think people feel separated from their government," President Barack Obama told ABC News. "They feel that their institutions are not looking out for them." The president has said his jobs plan, which would boost taxes on high earners, is a way to address some of the protesters' concerns.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has gone a step further, posting a petition, "100,000 Strong Standing With Occupy Wall Street," that blames Republican policies for the nation's economic discontent.
But many Occupy Wall Street activists say they are disillusioned with Obama and have no interest in helping him or other Democratic candidates.
"The Occupy movement is rooted in the idea that the political system is broken to such a degree that we can no longer work through the Republican or Democratic parties," Tim Franzen, a spokesman for Occupy Atlanta, said.
"This is not about politics. This is about people," said Marsha Spencer, an Occupy volunteer in New York. "We've lost our government. It's not by the people, for the people anymore. We need to get it back, and we don't need a political party to do that."
Such talk has frustrated some Democratic leaders, who say engaging electoral politics would make the Occupy Wall Street movement more effective.
"I want them to get up and start registering voters, start playing towards the 2012 election," former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said at a seminar at Harvard University last week. "Not just the presidential, but congressional and Senate elections and state legislative elections. That's where they can make real change."
At least one candidate seems to be channeling the energy of the Occupy Wall Street movement: Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School professor challenging Republican Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts.
Warren's campaign has drawn national attention after she described how the rich should pay more in taxes since they had benefited the most from government policies. Warren later claimed to have laid the "intellectual foundation" for the Occupy movement but stressed that protesters need to obey the law.
While Warren's campaign has drawn intense grass-roots enthusiasm — an estimated 1,000 people jammed a volunteer meeting in Boston on Sunday — Republicans are eager to turn her ties to the Occupy movement against her.
Crossroads GPS, a Republican super PAC with ties to former George W. Bush political director Karl Rove, released a television ad in Massachusetts linking Warren to rowdy Occupy protests. The group also called on Warren to "condemn the Occupy Wall Street movement for the escalating criminality, violence and extreme radicalization."
For their part, Republicans recognized an electoral ally in the tea party movement soon after its inception in early 2009, when activists began protesting government spending and the federal bank bailouts.
While many tea party members claimed to be nonpartisan, they were mostly white, older and Republican-leaning and shared the GOP's goal of limiting government and cutting spending. Obama was the poster child for the opposite view. Tea party activists helped drive many of the angry congressional town hall meetings protesting Obama's health care overhaul, and the sweeping Republican victories in the 2010 midterm elections were fueled in large party by tea party enthusiasm.
While the Occupy movement has not had similar tangible goals, activists say it has already had an impact on the political dialogue.
Labor leaders say the movement's message of economic inequality was a factor in Ohio, where voters overwhelmingly repealed a law curtailing public employees' right to collective bargaining. And some are crediting the movement with successfully pressuring Bank of America to drop its plan to charge customers a $5 monthly fee to use their bank cards.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., introduced legislation last week to prevent banks from circumventing state-level caps on interest rates. In an interview with The Associated Press, Whitehouse credited the Occupy movement for renewing public focus on banking practices.
"I'm hoping we can take advantage of some of that interest and energy in this," Whitehouse said.
Karin Hofmann, an Occupy activist in New York, said she was sure Obama's decision to delay approval of the controversial Keystone oil pipeline was a reaction to the Occupy movement.
"We've changed the whole conversation. It's been a paradigm shift," she said.
Associated Press writers Erika Niedowski in Providence, R.I., and Leonard Pallats in Atlanta contributed to this report.