How Republicans Should Engage Occupy Wall Street

The GOP presidential candidates could learn from Gov. Chris Christie's mix of conciliation and civil disagreement -- and so could tea partiers

In the clip above, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is asked what he thinks of Occupy Wall Street. His answer is worth a look, because unlike so many Republican politicians with a national profile, Christie understands when he should be conciliatory and when disagreement is useful.

"I think if you look at the Occupy Wall Street folks, and the tea-party folks, that they come from the same perspective, they just have different solutions," he says. "What they're saying is the government's not working for me anymore. The government is not being fair, the government is not helping me in the way that it should. And the tea-party folks have one set of solutions to that problem. And the Occupy Wall Street guys have a totally different set, probably 180 degrees different."

He added, "I don't happen to agree with a lot of the solutions the Occupy Wall Street guys have. But what I will tell you is, I understand why they're angry. 'Cause you look what's happening in Washington D.C. and it should disgust all of us."

What Christie says is contestable. People within the Occupy Wall Street and tea-party movements have different perspectives than others in their own groups, for example, and #OWS isn't primarily angry at what's going on at the White House or in Congress. But it's noteworthy that his approach is to 1) highlight areas of agreement, 2) signal that he understands the protestors' grievances, and 3) note that he has his own ideas about useful reforms.

That's smart politicking, because from a politician's perspective, there are two imperatives: Be as popular as possible, and push policy in whatever direction that you want it to go. Being dismissive of earnest civic concerns gets you nowhere. Why not focus disagreement on what matters?

Herman Cain is a good example of a Republican who took the opposite approach. "I don't have facts to back this up, but I happen to believe that these demonstrations are planned and orchestrated to distract from the failed policies of the Obama administration," he said to an interviewer. "Don't blame Wall Street, don't blame the big banks, if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself! ... It is not a person's fault if they succeeded, it is a person's fault if they failed." That's dumb politicking. It needlessly insults political opponents and their allies, signals that you don't understand their actual concerns, focuses on a straw man, and doesn't address what ultimately matters, from a politician's perspective: the appropriate policy solutions.

The wrinkle here is that tea-party voters create an incentive for their would-be champions to behave like Cain rather than Christie. They reward dumb politicking because it flatters their prejudices and produces cathartic media moments. In doing so, they get less effective champions. See Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. When will they wise up and figure this out?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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