Democrats see minefield in Occupy protests

Occupy Columbia protesters sing together minutes before being arrested by Bureau of Protective Services officers on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds in Columbia, S.C., Nov. 16, 2011.
C. Aluka Berry,AP Photo/The State

NEW YORK - The Republican Party and the tea party seemed to be a natural political pairing. But what may have seemed like another politically beneficial alliance — Democrats and Occupy Wall Street — hasn't happened.

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.

Complete coverage: Occupy Wall Street protests

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."

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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."