Some Democrats Are Wary of Occupy Wall Street

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With President Obama ramping up his populist rhetoric, members of his party worry that the burgeoning protest movement will alienate independents

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Pinched by a still sour economy and a deeply pessimistic public, President Obama and his Democratic allies are evincing a sharper, far more populist message as a defense against next year's Republican charge. Highlighted by a $450 billion proposal in Congress, paid for by taxing the wealthy, they have found a message tailor-made for their traditional base.

But their new tone and, most notably, the emergence of the populist-fueled Occupy Wall Street movement, have left some Democrats worried. They are nervous that the president's newfound rhetoric will alienate key swing voters, and they're urging a softer tone that they think closely hews to the one favored by moderates.

The dilemma is an old one for Democrats, or for Republicans for that matter. Political parties always have to balance the competing demands of their most fervent base of supporters with their moderate wings. But Democrats face fresh tension this year because of the perilous state of Obama's re-election and the evident fraying of their coalition, one inherently more dependent on moderates than the Republican coalition.

Some Democratic lawmakers are already carefully crafting their own message, while taking a cautious course with OWS.

"They're taking a wait-and-see approach with Occupy Wall Street," said Lanae Erickson, deputy director of the Social Policy and Politics Program at the left-of-center group Third Way. "I think there's a danger. It's very difficult for a president to turn an angry populist movement into something positive for a campaign. The last president to do that was probably FDR."

The president's populist shift is noteworthy less for its substance -- the tax breaks, infrastructure spending, and increased taxes on the wealthy are broadly popular -- than for the rhetoric surrounding it. In Obama's speeches, mixed in with his bottom-line assertions that the math doesn't add up without extra revenue are populist pleas for "fairness."

"It's also about fairness," he said during a September speech promoting his jobs bill. "It's about whether we are, in fact, in this together and we're looking out for one another. We know what's right. It's time to do what's right."

But Democrats did not rush to embrace the bill. First, there was widespread hesitancy to get behind it before the president outlined how to pay for it, even among Democrats from liberal-leaning areas. After Obama proposed his pay-fors, some Democratic senators in red states, such as Ben Nelson of Nebraska, still voted against it.

Ostensibly, the public supports tax increases on the rich. But in general, voters are never eager to raise taxes. And the political party that champions tax hikes in a struggling economy flirts with danger. "Even if you're talking about taxing some other group, at some point, voters think, 'It's going to come back to me,'" said David Winston, a Republican pollster. "It's like opening Pandora's box."

An August survey conducted by Third Way of 400 "switchers" -- voters who supported Obama in 2008 but voted for a Republican in last year's midterm elections ­-- showed that one of their top concerns about Democrats was their willingness to raise taxes. And those concerns pushed them toward the Republicans. Most of the swing voters were ideologically closer to the GOP, the survey revealed, even if they were disdainful of the party's more conservative, tea party elements.

Voters like that are unlikely to be swayed by pleas for fairness, Erickson said. "I think Democrats need to emphasize a positive vision for the future, and they can't meet pessimism with pessimism," she said. "We have a pretty tough economic environment right now, and they need to show a vision for putting America back on top."

The biggest obstacle to a coherent Democratic strategy right now is Occupy Wall Street, which is growing in popularity. A CBS News/New York Times poll last week found that 43 percent of respondents agreed with the movement's goals compared to just 27 percent who didn't agree.

But some Democrats are cautious about where it's heading, particularly after protestors in Oakland clashed with police this week. Even if the message is popular, some of the movement's tactics, like large groups of young people camped in tents along busy city thoroughfares, could turn off some moderates.

"You do worry about them marginalizing themselves and the middle of the country looking at them as sort of extremists, or even worse, knuckleheads," said one Democratic strategist who has advised candidates about dealing with the movement.

Image credit: Chet Susslin/National Journal

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Alex Roarty is a politics writer for National Journal.

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