Toy With OWS and the Tea Party at Your Peril

Playing cynical games with these grassroots movements can backfire on leaders in both parties.

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The truth is, both the grassroots of the right and the left in America are no longer pawns to be moved into position by the mere shouting of a word or pointing of a finger by a leader. Instead, these activists have become an inconvenience to those who think they hold the power.

But the game must be played, and so Obama's "we are on their side" bow to the Wall Street protesters is really a naked political calculation. It is a roll of the dice -- one in which the president would launch a "class warfare" argument against the Republican Party: "Would you rather keep … tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires or would you say, let's get teachers back in the classroom?" Nice sound bite, but it does nothing to get the local small-business owner to start hiring again. But of course we know that's not the point.

But here is the point: As the protests have spread from Wall Street to Main Street, the president and Democrat strategists seem to hope these demonstrations against "corporate greed" will be a sustainable progressive alternative to the Tea Party, thus boosting Democrat chances in next year's elections. Early indications are that such a strategy appears to be working -- at least with those who are watching all of this from their living rooms.

A recent Fox News poll asked, "Do you think Barack Obama's political strategy for re-election is designed to bring people together with a hopeful message, or drive people apart with a partisan message?" According to Fox News, "Fifty-six percent said the president is pursuing his campaign strategy to bring people together. That majority of registered voters included 53 percent of independents and 68 percent of self-described moderates. It also includes 58 percent of people who earn over $50,000 annually."

This is, however, a strategy fraught with danger.

OWS protesters, however, are not as precise about what their movement is or what it stands for. As the New York Times noted, "Occupy Wall Street is animated by a central, galvanizing idea -- that the distribution of wealth is unfair." True, but absent something more than alienating one's self from the "establishment" or refusing to leave the parks they have occupied in various cities, the movement may very well leave "many all revved up with no place to go." Which means the cause that became a movement could become just a moment  co-opted otherwise by presidential politics. The Tea Party avoided that trap in 2010, and their impact on public policy has been nothing short of profound since then.

Similarly, progressives got an early taste of turning politics on its head in Wisconsin as they battled Republican Gov. Scott Walker in an organized and disciplined way over everything from collective bargaining privileges to locating members of the state senate (who had fled the state in protest). But that combination of energy and discipline has been lacking with OWS. The constant images of riot-geared police and stories of violence and property destruction don't help them to win friends and influence a wary America.

Going forward, the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements will be two excellent points of political reference. After appreciating their similarities (even conservative Sarah Palin says she doesn't like "crony capitalism" any more than, say, socialist Bernie Sanders), in the end it is clear that they represent two distinct worldviews. They don't complement each other. They collide. And they certainly don't compromise; rather, they challenge the very political orthodoxy that has gotten us into this financial mess.

Whether it's shouting down a congressman at a town hall meeting, protesting inside a state house chamber or occupying public parks across the country, a new and very different political dynamic -- potentially more powerful than any we have witnessed in generations -- has begun to emerge in response to the cynical political games played in Washington.

Hence, those sitting comfortably in their ivory-towered political establishments, including Pennsylvania Avenue, had better take a look out the window, because that sound you hear approaching from both directions is the footsteps of citizens with their pitchforks and torches -- and a tent or two -- on their way to the ballot box.