When it comes to how to react to Occupy Wall Street national Republicans are mostly working from the same, slightly strange, playbook: attack the protesters in tones that are either haughtily dismissive or alarmist fear-mongering, and then retreat from it, attempting to co-opt their anger. It started with House majority leader Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA), who referred to the protesters in a speech last Friday to the Values Voter Summit as ““growing mobs” that are “pitting…Americans against Americans.” When asked on Tuesday about his statement, he declined to repeat it, saying: “People are upset, and they’re justifiably frustrated. They’re out of work.” He then tried, preposterously, to claim he was talking about Democrats in Washington when he had been clearly talking about activists in New York. “What I was attempting to say is that the actions and statements that elected leaders in this town condoning the pitting of Americans against Americans is not very helpful,” Cantor said.
The candidates have followed suit. As Think Progress reports, Rick Santorum called the protesters a “fringe group” on CNBC, but later said, “I understand the motivation behind the protests.” Mitt Romney, meanwhile, said last week that the protests are “dangerous,” but on Monday, he changed his tune, saying, “I worry about the 99 percent. I understand how those people feel.” (At least Romney, a retired multi-millionaire, admits he’s in the 1 percent, although he is almost certainly lying when he claims to know how the unemployed feel, notwithstanding jokes about how he too is unemployed.)
Romney went on to say at the Republican economic debate in Hanover, New Hampshire on Tuesday that the protests for economic justice actually demonstrate the need for tax cuts and justify his plutocratic economic agenda. “The reason for giving a tax break to middle income Americans is that middle income Americans have been the people who have been most hurt by the Obama economy,” explained Romney. “The reason that you’re seeing protests, as you indicated, on Wall Street and across the country is, middle income Americans are having a hard time making ends meet.” Further tax cuts is the opposite of what the protesters are demanding.
Newt Gingrich said the protests are "the natural product of Obama’s class warfare." But when asked about that at the debate he tried to characterize the protesters as justifiably angry middle-class Americans, just like the Tea Party. “Virtually every American has a reason to be angry,” said Gingrich. “I think the people who are protesting on Wall Street break into two groups. One is left-wing agitators who would be happy to show up next week on any other topic, and the other is sincere middle-class people who, frankly, are very close to the Tea Party people and actually care. And you can tell which group is which. The people who are decent, responsible citizens pick up after themselves. The people who are just out there as activists trash the place and walk off and are proud of having trashed it.”
Gingrich clearly has never been to the protests. I have, and I saw that the long-haired, tattooed and bearded protesters that Gingrich would put in his maligned second group had set up a recycling program. Of course it makes sense that environmentalists would clean up after themselves. But being accurate or making sense are not requirements to which Gingrich submits himself.
The one Republican candidate who seems to have the courage of his convictions and no desire to co-opt the protests is Herman Cain. Last week he called the protesters “un-American” on the campaign trail, after arrogantly chiding them, “if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.” At the debate on Tuesday Bloomberg’s Julianna Glover asked Cain whether that meant he was telling the 14 million unemployed Americans to blame themselves. Cain’s response was dishonest and nonsensical, but at least it didn’t try to harness false populism for his regressive tax proposals. “That response was directed at the people that are protesting on Wall Street, not that 14 million people who are out of work for no reason of their own other than this economy is not growing,” said Cain. Of course, going to a protest does not actually make you any more or less responsible for your employment situation. If the protesters are responsible for their unemployment, so are the unemployed people at home. Cain, like the other candidates, would like to have it both ways: convincing Americans that he understands their pain while opposing any effort to rectify it.