A planned meeting today between the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Occupy Wall Street activists was scuttled late Tuesday after Roll Call inquired about it, highlighting increasing tensions between Democrats and the movement.
While Democrats are adopting the movement’s “99 percent” language, they are increasingly retreating from the protesters themselves and their anti-capitalist rhetoric. Some in the party view the Occupy activists — camped out in grubby tent cities around the country — as a potential liability in 2012.
“Democrats should reject Occupy Wall Street as the spokesmen for the 99 percent,” said Kelly Bingel, who served as former Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s (D-Ark.)chief of staff until 2005 and is now a partner with Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti Inc. “The chance of those guys going out and voting or encouraging anyone else to vote is very low.”
Another Democratic lobbyist and early supporter of President Barack Obama agreed. “I think Democrats need to stay away from embracing OWS. We can acknowledge their frustrations without embracing their movement,” he said. “They are too fringe-y and don’t play well in middle America. Let the Republicans be the party of the angry right. We need to be the party where moderates feel welcomed.”
That tension was on display Tuesday as an attempt to bring Occupy activists together with lawmakers devolved into a controversy over who was using whom for a public relations ploy. The meeting between members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and 10 protesters from New York City was canceled late Tuesday afternoon.
Han Shan, a spokesman for the Occupy Wall Street group that was based in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and who was involved in planning the meeting, said it was intended to be an opportunity for protesters to request an investigation of the recent shuttering of encampments in cities across the country.
“They were people who wanted to know why there has been no investigation of the very systematic suppression of Occupiers’ free speech,” he told Roll Call on Tuesday. “They had one demand. ... Potentially [the lawmakers] had a different agenda.” Shan has been active in street protest movements for years, including the World Trade Organization protests that blossomed at the turn of the century.
Sam Jewler, a member of the Occupy DC group based in McPherson Square, seemed skeptical when he heard about the meeting with the Progressive Caucus. “No idea who they are, but very intrigued,” he said in an email sent from a sit-in at Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office six days into a hunger strike aimed at winning the District full Congressional voting rights. “This is a serious new step in the Occupy movement, bound to be controversial within it.”
A Democratic staffer familiar with the meeting made no mention of an investigation request and told Roll Call that the Occupy activists were coming to discuss corporate personhood and campaign finance reform among other causes that Democrats in Congress have focused on recently.
A spokesman for the caucus declined to comment on the circumstances that led to the cancellation of the meeting, but an email sent to CPC members from the group’s executive director, Brad Bauman, blamed a leak for the last-minute change.
“Due to a leak from within the caucus, press were alerted to our Occupy guests this week,” he wrote in an email obtained by Roll Call. “Our guests will now not be participating in the Member meeting. ... All internal communications are OFF THE RECORD.”
Even the liberal Members of Congress originally scheduled to meet with the Occupiers were careful to separate the public face of the protesters and the concerns that spawned them.
“I think that there is a distinction that needs to be made between embracing Occupiers and embracing the issues and the struggle that they have brought to the forefront of the national agenda,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, in a statement to Roll Call. “Anyone who thinks it’s a mistake to embrace these issues is not prepared to win in 2012. ... The worst thing Democrats can do is pretend they don’t exist.”
Republicans have been quick to point out that OWS has proved to be a political minefield for presumptive Democratic nominee Elizabeth Warren, already waging a fierce campaign to oust Massachusetts junior Sen. Scott Brown (R). In the early part of her campaign, she claimed to have laid the “intellectual foundation” for the Occupiers, but she has dialed down her commitment to the movement as its popularity slipped.
Some liberal Democratic strategists said the party should use the energy around the populist cause to its advantage while ignoring the packaging. “They can try to kill the messenger, but it’s the message that’s important,” said Bud Jackson, a Democratic strategist. “Among base voters, who are very critical in this upcoming elections, the messaging coming out of OWS is widely popular and important.”