The activists behind Occupy Wall Street, who for weeks last fall captured almost as much attention as the Republican candidates running for president, are now directly confronting what has long been the central question of their movement: can they shape and influence public policy like the Tea Party has?
The May Day protests and marches on Tuesday in cities around the country, including New York, are what the group is dubbing its “spring offensive” and are a renewed attempt by Occupy to shift the American political debate, particularly in pressing to help middle and low-income workers, who they have famously dubbed “the 99 percent.”
The day of action comes as the movement’s brief momentum appears to have stalled. National Democrats, who were initially wary of the unruly protests, then embraced their core message of income inequality, are now somewhere in between. President Obama and his campaign are touting some parts of the Occupy agenda, slamming Mitt Romney for paying a lower tax rate than many Americans who make much money less and advocating the “Buffett Rule,” a proposal would require millionaires to pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes.
The president himself is speaking much more about the growing gap between the rich and poor in American than he did four years ago.
At the same time, Obama’s core campaign message and speeches have been more anti-Romney and anti-Republican than specifically aimed at the “1 percent” the Occupy activists are attacking. And unlike in 2010, when a group of Republican Senate and House candidates enthusiastically ran under the Tea Party banner, there are few Democrats running for major offices touting their affiliation with Occupy Wall Street.
In part, this reflects the big challenge of Occupy Wall Street: many politicians, particularly on the left, largely agree with them already. The Tea Party was such a powerful force in 2009 because the GOP was desperate for a vision to rally around then.
Many Washington establishment types were calling for Republicans to embrace gay marriage and other moderate stands. But Tea Party activists instead galvanized the GOP around a more conservative posture, which Romney and other politicians were forced to accept. Largely because of the Tea Party, the GOP of 2012 is in many ways more conservative than four years ago.
In contrast, many of the goals articulated by the Occupy Movement were already things most Democratic politicians, including President Obama, have also proposed.
“We want an end to tax breaks for the rich. We want an end to the attacks on our right to organize. We want an end to the mass incarceration of people of color. We want an end to all wars and an end to the militarization of our foreign policy. We want an end to our current political system that is bought and paid for by 1 percenters. We want legalization, equal rights, civil rights, and a path to citizenship for immigrant working families. And we want citizenship to mean, as it should, that all people are to be treated justly and equally by their government,” the activists wrote the site OccupyWallST.org in describing their vision.
Beyond the wars plank, President Obama has advocated nearly all of those policies already. He has not done so in an aggressive, blunt way, as the activists have, but the barrier to these goals is Republicans in Congress who oppose them, not one of rhetoric.
If these activists truly want to affect change, other models seem to be emerging. In Wisconsin, liberals focused on the state level, trying to force conservative Republican governor Scott Walker from office. Groups such as the Color of Change have taken on organizations like American Legislative Exchange Council who play powerful roles in writing and pushing policies that often benefit wealthy Americans and corporations.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr