At his recent news conference, President Barack Obama praised Occupy Wall Street, saying, "It expresses the frustrations that the American people feel." Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi praised the protesters, saying, "God bless them for their spontaneity." Vice President Joe Biden claimed the protesters had "a lot in common with the tea party." And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is circulating a petition seeking 100,000 signers to declare, "I stand with the Occupy Wall Street protests."
The political calculation behind all this is obvious: Democrats hope Occupy Wall Street will boost their party's chances in next year's election as the tea party did for the GOP in 2010. But Democratic leaders are wrong in believing that Occupy Wall Street is the liberal alternative to the tea party.
The tea party is a middle-class movement of people who want limited government, less spending, less debt, low taxes, and the repeal of ObamaCare. Occupy Wall Street isn't a movement. It's a series of events populated by a weird cast of disaffected characters, ranging from anarchists and anti-Semites to socialists and LaRouchies. What they have in common is an amorphous anger aimed at banks, investors, rich people and bourgeois values.
The tea party reveres the Constitution and wants to change laws to restore the country to prosperity. Occupy Wall Street started by occupying a New York City park and then blocked the Brooklyn Bridge, sparking the arrest of hundreds.
The tea party files for permits for its rallies and picks up its trash afterwards. Occupy Wall Street tolerates protesters who defecate on police cars, allows the open sale of drugs at protests, and features women walking around rallies topless.
The tea party has settled down to democracy's patient, responsible work, either by exerting influence on the Republican Party nomination process or educating Americans on the issues in order to hold politicians in both parties to account.
By comparison, Occupy Wall Street seems alienated by the American political system. It has no concrete agenda and no plan to become a political institution. Yet it needs both things to have an impact on politics or policy. Without them, Americans will be interested in Occupy Wall Street's weird and off-putting side show for only so long.
The fact that it lacks a clear program means that Occupy Wall Street is susceptible to being captured by even more extreme elements. It's no accident its rallies and marches around the country include signs extolling wacky causes and marginal, but highly organized, left-wing groups. Nothing draws ideologues who know what they want as fast as a malleable crowd that doesn't.
What Democrats eager to latch on to the Occupy Wall Street protests don't seem to fully grasp is that these events are in part an expression of deep dissatisfaction with Mr. Obama and other D.C. Democrats. Some young Occupy Wall Street participants are angry because their economic future seems so bleak. They want someone to hold responsible for the absence of jobs. Others see Mr. Obama as insufficiently liberal. And some are simply nutty: A third of the protesters polled by New York magazine say the United States is as bad as al Qaeda.
While Mr. Obama and other top Democrats may be momentarily excited by the notion of a long-term relationship, Occupy Wall Street may not want to even go out for a date. The refusal of protestors in Atlanta to allow Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis to address their rally is just one sign this may not be a terribly Democratic-friendly crowd.
Rushing to identify with Occupy Wall Street could well threaten Mr. Obama's re-election by putting off the very swing voters whom the president needs. It could further diminish the president's support from center-left business leaders, already sick of Mr. Obama's class warfare and faux populism. Appearing to condone the crude personal behavior of Occupy Wall Street protestors can also further erode Mr. Obama's standing with culturally conservative blue-collar voters.
Before they go much further with this courtship, the president and other Democrats need to remember it's always dangerous to associate with people who are just plain kooky.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, October 12, 2011.