Dems aggressively counter Republican attacks on anti-Wall Street protests

Democratic leaders are pushing back aggressively against Republican attacks on the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York and Washington.

They say the conservative criticism of the rallies is evidence that Republicans are out of touch with working-class Americans — a theme that’s sure to carry over into next year’s elections, as both sides try to sell voters on their plans for creating jobs.

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In the latest salvo, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) on Monday took a shot at House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) for characterizing the Wall Street protesters as “a mob” threatening to pit “Americans against Americans.”

“Mobs?” the DCCC said in an email message petitioning support for the Wall Street protesters. “That must be what Republicans refer to as the middle class, or maybe the millions of unemployed Americans across the country.”

The debate over the protests carries echoes of the one surrounding the conservative Tea Party movement, which emerged after the 2008 election as a reaction to the perception that government was growing out of control at the expense of individual freedom. 

Like the Tea Party discussion before it, the Wall Street debate has turned testy on Capitol Hill, as Republicans have lobbed charges that the protesters are inherently un-American, and Democrats have countered that GOP leaders are hypocrites for supporting the Tea Party movement but not the critics of Big Finance.

Both sides seem to see the movement as a political winner.

On Sunday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asked why Cantor hadn’t similarly condemned the Tea Party movement. 

“I didn’t hear him say anything when the Tea Party was out demonstrating, actually spitting on members of Congress right here in the Capitol, and he and his colleagues were putting signs in the windows encouraging them,” Pelosi said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “But let’s not get down to that.”

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, claimed a Tea Party protester spit on him in the spring of 2009 at the height of the furor over healthcare reform. Other lawmakers claimed protesters shouted racial and sexual slurs at them. Many conservatives say those incidents never happened.

The Wall Street protests have become fodder for Republican presidential candidates eager to take on the left.

“To protest Wall Street and the bankers is basically saying you’re anti-capitalism,” Herman Cain, a successful businessman and GOP presidential hopeful, told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Another Republican hopeful, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), told “Face the Nation” that the protests are a “natural outcome of a bad education system teaching them really dumb ideas.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has also condemned the protests, characterizing them as “dangerous” manifestations of “class warfare.”

Liberal supporters argue that such expression was exactly what the Founders had in mind when they guaranteed Americans the right to free speech.

“There’s nothing more democratic than what’s going on at these protests,” said Paco Fabian, spokesman for Change to Win, a coalition of labor unions that supports the movement.

With the media spotlight focusing ever more intently on the multi-city protests, a handful of liberal Democrats — including Reps. John Larson (Conn.), Louise Slaughter (N.Y.), Raul Grijalva (Ariz.) and Keith Ellison (Minn.) — have gone out of their way to endorse the movement. 

But the DCCC petition — combined with Pelosi’s strong words Sunday — are ready indication that Democrats are hoping to parlay the protesters’ energy into a broader message they can use on the campaign trail. 

“Whether you agree with what the protesters have to say or not, there is no question that, like the Tea Party before them, they are expressing themselves in a fundamentally American way,” a senior Democratic aide said Monday in an email. “For the Republican leaders to say anything different is nothing but rank hypocrisy from the folks who embraced the Tea Party with open arms.”

Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal policy group, said there are sweeping differences between the liberal Wall Street protests and the conservative Tea Party movement. The latter has been an inherently political movement designed to rally GOP lawmakers behind more conservative policies, he said, while the former “is not intended to drive the Democrats to the left.”

“They [the protesters] have an independent moral voice, and they’re very worried about getting into a political agenda,” Borosage said. 

Borosage predicted the media’s focus on the events will draw even cleaner lines of distinction between the two parties’ very different notions about the appropriate size and role of the federal government.

“People will have to decide whose side they’re on,” he said.

Delivering a very similar message on Sunday, Pelosi indicated she thinks Democrats would have the upper hand in that debate.

“It’s a fight between those who do not believe there should be any government role, as I said, [in] public safety, public education, clean air, clean water, food safety,” she said. 

“Bless their hearts, the Republicans don’t believe — many of them don’t believe in a public-sector role, and they vote accordingly.

“The American people,” she added, “have to make a judgment as to what is important to them.”