Prominent House Democrats are embracing the Occupy Wall Street protests as demonstrations are spreading across the country and gaining support from traditional progressive institutions. Democratic leaders in Congress say that there’s a lot to like about movement’s central message that corporate greed is fueling a growing income gap. And the enthusiasm from Democrats in Washington suggests that they think this sentiment will resonant across the country.
Describing the protests as “serious” and “encouraging,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) praised the sentiment motivating Occupy Wall Street and called for Congress to take heed. “It’s got a clear message, and that is frustration with the way that business is being done, the way that wealth is tilting towards the high end and the middle class is shrinking. And that message needs to be given,” Welch, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told me on Wednesday. What’s more he added, “it’s a real grassroots, citizens-led initiative. It’s not a top-down effort, it’s bottom up. In that sense, I think it’s very similar to the tea party.”
Other progressive Democrats are even more enthusiastic. “I’m so proud to see the Occupy Wall Street movement standing up to this rampant corporate greed and peacefully participating in our democracy,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY). The co-chairs of the Progressive Caucus, Reps. Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva, issued a joint statement to express “solidarity” with the movement, describing themselves as inspired by the mass movement. “We join the calls for corporate accountability and expanded middle-class opportunity,” they wrote. “The silent masses aren’t so silent anymore. They are fighting to give voice to the struggles that everyday Americans are going through,” added Rep. John Larson in his own statement supporting Occupy Wall Street.
Even Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat, agreed that there were similarities between the protesters’ message and Democratic priorities. “Certainly, there is an overlap in terms of jobs and economic opportunity, which they want and we want,” Hoyer told me. Though he didn’t go so far as his Democratic colleagues in embracing the movement wholeheartedly, he said that one “positive aspect” of the protests is that they’re “raising issues and raising concerns and asking policymakers to focus on it.”
He explained: “There are obviously people all over this country who are very concerned about the economy...and about the fact that we have increasingly we have a chasm between the middle class that is retreating and the wealthier class that has seen an extraordinary appreciation in income.”
To be sure, not all Democrats have been as enthused, particularly outside the party’s decidedly liberal Democratic caucus in the House. “I don’t know if it’s helpful,” White House chief of staff Bill Daley, a former JP Morgan executive, told Dave Weigel on Wednesday. “I wouldn’t characterize it that way. Look it: People express their opinions... So whether it’s helpful to us, or helpful for people to understand in the political system that there are a lot of people out there concerned about the economy — I know the focus is on Wall Street, but it’s a broader discussion that we’re having.”
And even Democrats who’ve praised the movement admit they’re still uncertain if the outpouring of economic angst will make a bigger impact, at least through the conventional channels of politics and policy. “The tea party was actually successful in turning their discontent into electoral victories....So if you compare it to that, then how do you organize and mobilize the sentiments that’s out there into effective electoral action,” Welch said. “A lot of folks that are participating might not even see electoral action as the way to go.”
A growing number of labor unions and other powerful liberal institutions have declared themselves allies of Occupy Wall Street, which could link the movement to a more concrete policy agency and direct some of its energy to fueling change within the system. But even if that happens, Welch notes, the present-day Congress still stands in the way of producing real change, and the electoral tide may have to turn for the deadlock to be broken. “It’s not just Wall Street, it’s Congress,” the Vermont Democrat said. As such, there’s no certainty that even large-scale grassroots support for a Democratic jobs bill, for instance, would make any substantive difference — at least in the near term.
Finally, even supporters note that rising Democratic enthusiasm for Occupy Wall Street could end up backfiring if Washington leaders are seen as openly trying to co-opt the demonstrations, rather than simply cheering them on. “I know that some politicians are going down there, but frankly, I think the people that are there are the leaders,” Welch concluded. “The last thing they need is some politicians getting in the middle of it.”