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The Globe and Mail

Occupy Wall Street v. Tea Party: the further polarization of U.S. voters

Oh, oh. This could get ugly.

Or make that, uglier.

The Occupy Wall Street movement that is mushrooming across the United States (with Canadian copycats) threatens to further turn the 2012 election cycle into a shouting match between the extremes of U.S. politics.

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In the early days of the three-week-old movement, Democratic leaders had been cautious about expressing solidarity with the protesters. But they now seem increasingly willing to embrace them and their inchoate cause.

The risk for Democrats in doing so is analogous to the peril Republican leaders faced in embracing the Tea Party movement. While the anger and energy that drive the Occupy Wall Street crowd could help mobilize the Democratic base for 2012, it could alienate mainstream voters.

While Americans may be angry at their banks, it is unlikely most of them would support the OWS movement's unclear, but clearly radical, prescription for change.

"We don't want higher standards of living. We want better standards of living," one speaker at a New York protest said, according to a posting on "The only sense in which we are communists is that we care for the commons. The commons of nature. The commons of what is privatized by intellectual property. The commons of biogenetics. For this and only for this we should fight."

Whatever that means, leading Democrats now seem to agree.

On Monday, the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent an e-mail to supporters, blasting Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor for referring to the protesters as "mobs."

"Mobs?" Robby Mook wrote. "That must be what Republicans refer to as the middle class, or maybe the millions of unemployed Americans across the country."

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He then invited Democrats to sign a petition that read: "Protestors are assembling in New York and around the country to let billionaires, big oil and big bankers know that we're not going to let the richest 1 per cent force draconian economic policies and massive cuts to crucial programs on Main Street … help us reach 100,000 strong standing with Occupy Wall Street."

President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have also weighed in, expressing common cause with some of the protesters' gripes, while keeping their distance from them.

"The American people understand that not everybody has been following the rules; that Wall Street is an example of that … A lot of folks who are doing the right thing aren't rewarded, and a lot of folks who aren't doing the right thing are rewarded," Mr. Obama said last week. "That's going to express itself politically in 2012 and beyond until people feel like once again we're getting back to some old-fashioned American values."

Republicans, however, have been just as dismissive of the Occupy Wall Street movement as Democrats seemed to have been when Tea Party protests started multiplying in 2009. Candidates for the GOP presidential nomination have been particularly effusive in rejecting the demonstrators.

Georgia businessman Herman Cain, who has emerged as the newest Tea Party favourite in the GOP race, charged on Sunday that the protesters are "anti-American."

"To protest Wall Street and the bankers is saying that you're anti-capitalism," Mr. Cain said.

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"Part of it is jealousy," added Mr. Cain, who is black. "My parents, they never played the victim card. My parents never said, 'We hope that the rich people lose something so we can get something.' No, my dad's idea was, 'I want to work hard enough so I can buy a Cadillac – not take somebody else's.'

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, whose nomination bid is lagging, also chimed in with harsh words for the protesters and Mr. Obama – indeed, lumping the two together.

"The sad thing is, this is a natural product of Obama's class warfare," Mr. Gingrich said, in reference to the President's tough new populist stand. "We have had a strain of hostility to free enterprise and, frankly, a strain of hostility to classic America starting in our academic institutions … I regard the Wall Street protesters as a natural outcome of a bad education system teaching them really dumb ideas."

The Republican contenders are likely to take up this theme when they meet for their next debate on Tuesday night in New Hampshire. Democrats are just as likely to continue their push in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement as Mr. Obama's jobs bill comes up in the Senate this week.

More and more, it looks like the centre will be an orphan in 2012.

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