In 2009, where Democrats saw an unruly mob, Republicans saw patriotism.
In 2011, where Republicans see an unruly mob, Democrats see patriotism.
That was the “tea party.” This is the “Occupy” movement.
Reaction to the “OccupyWall Street” protests, which have now spread to Washington and other American cities, broke down along party lines Sunday, with Democrats voicing support for the movement and some Republicans painting the demonstrators as anti-capitalist agitators backed by big labor, anti-war groups and other liberal activists.
Since the tea party’s birth in 2009, conservative lawmakers, candidates and pundits have praised it as the natural reaction to an unprecedented explosion of government spending and federal regulation on a litany of issues including health care. Democrats and many of their liberal allies in the media, however, have often painted tea party members as “racists” and “bigots” who oppose President Obama’s every move simply because he’s black.
While the two movements are backed by opposite ends of the political spectrum, each party reciting the other’s talking points from two years ago, some see similarities between them.
The “core” grievance of the Occupy protesters “is that the bargain has been breached with the American people. There’s a lot in common with the tea party,” Vice President Joseph R. Biden said last week, citing the anger of both the tea party and the OccupyWall Street crowd toward federal bailouts of banks and other financial institutions.
Despite those perceived similarities, Democrats continue to have harsh words for the tea party. Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, last month said the group and its backers in Congress “can go straight to hell.”
While no Republican has told the Occupy crowd to go to hell, many Republicans are pushing back against the movement, which over the weekend staged a protest that shut down the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia recently described the protesters as “a mob,” and said he’s troubled that elected Democrats are actively supporting them.
Democrats are now accusing Mr. Cantor and others of blatant hypocrisy.
“I didn’t hear him saying anything when the tea party was out demonstrating, actually spitting on members of Congress right here in the Capitol,” House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said on Sunday’s “This Week” talk show on ABC.
The former House speaker was referring to an incident in March 2010, when, at the height of the health care debate, tea party protesters were accused of spitting on Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Missouri Democrat. They were also accused of hurling homosexual slurs at openly gay Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, and racial epithets at several black members of Congress.
Tea party leaders have both fiercely condemned such language and denied some of the specific charges. Conservative lawmakers have often followed suit, stressing that there’s no room for racism in the movement.
Republicans now want Democrats to similarly condemn the actions of the Occupy movement, which has been accused based on some of its demands — for example, total forgiveness of all debts worldwide — of being motivated by a hatred of U.S. capitalism.
“It’s anti-American because to protest Wall Street and the bankers is basically saying you’re anti-capitalism,” said businessman Herman Cain, now one of the front-runners for the GOP presidential nomination, on Sunday’s “Face the Nation” program.
“I believe the protests are more anti-capitalism and anti-free market than anything else,” he said on the CBS show, elaborating that the protesters are aiming frustration at the state of the economy at the wrong target.
“The bankers and the people on Wall Street didn’t write these failed policies of the Obama administration,” he said.
Mr. Cain, who has surged to the top of many polls, also said that he thinks the protests have been “coordinated” by pro-Democrat labor unions “to create a distraction” from the administration’s inability to resurrect the sinking American economy. In a widely publicized interview with the Wall Street Journal last week, he said that angry activists who don’t have a job and haven’t achieved success should blame themselves, not big banks and corporations or wealthy Americans.
While Mr. Cain and other Republicans have also taken aim at organized labor and other allies of the Democratic Party for their support of the protests, supporters think they have been a grass-roots uprising, not staged events.
“It’s the American system. It’s a democratic system,” said Mrs. Pelosi, who in 2009 derided the tea party movement as “AstroTurf, it’s not really a grass-roots movement. It’s AstroTurf by some of the wealthiest people in America to keep the focus on tax cuts for the rich instead of for the great middle class.”
“People are angry. I support the message [of the protesters] to the establishment, whether it is Wall Street or the political establishment … change has to happen,” she said.
President Obama seems to share that view. In a press conference last week, he said the protests show the “broad-based frustration” of Americans who believe the system is now rigged against the middle class.
“We had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout the economy … and yet you’re still seeing some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on the abusive practices that got us into this in the first place,” Mr. Obama said, taking a shot at banks and corporations that continue to rake in huge profits at a time of 9 percent unemployment.
But presidential hopeful and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Sunday that the president is largely responsible for the Occupy activism by pushing a “haves vs. have-nots” narrative designed to pit Americans against each other.
He said on “Face the Nation” that the movement is “the natural product of Obama’s class warfare.”
Whatever their genesis, the protests have spread beyond New York City and continued across the country Sunday after a weekend of protests in Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and elsewhere.
A crowd of about 200 Occupy D.C. activists marched on Freedom Plaza, a block from the White House, on Sunday. About 100 people showed up at an Occupy event in Bradenton, Fla., railing against disparities in the financial, tax and health care systems in the U.S., according to the Associated Press.
Local media outlets reported that several hundred people rallied in Burlington, Vt., protesting everything from the banking industry to the cost of education to the death penalty. And in Denver, activists have set up more than 20 tents and shelters near the state Capitol and held up signs Sunday condemning greed and corruption.
Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, showed up a recent Occupy protest in Atlanta, and, while he didn’t speak to the crowd, he told ABC News that he stands with the group.
“I support you, what you’re doing to humanize American corporations, humanize the American government and look out for those who have been left out and left behind,” Mr. Lewis said.
“We will be in a thousand cities in this country by the end of the month. Hundreds of cities in other countries. We will see general assemblies on six continents,” reads a post on the site. “We are growing. Block by block — city by city. We will see change in this country, in this world. It will happen sooner than you can imagine.”
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Ben Wolfgang is a national reporter for The Washington Times. Before coming to the Times, he spent four years as a political reporter in Pennsylvania. His focus is on education and science policy. Ben lives in southeast D.C. and has played guitar in several bands while still in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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