Occupy Wall Street: The Dem's opportunity? Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Oct 18, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses why he thinks 'Occupy Wall Street is a movement to be praised, and why it's a timely call for justice.

Hello, everyone, and welcome. By the end of the hour, we'll have solved all the world's problems, as usual. There's another GOP debate, when, tonight? Hard to keep track -- especially if you're Rick Perry, it seems. He always seems as if he got the date wrong, woke up from a nap at the last minute and had just enought time to rush over to the auditorium. Meanwhile, the Occupy Wall Street protests continue to resonate. Today's column is about their potential political impact. I think economic justice is a powerful issue. How do you see it?

I find it very interesting (and satisfying) that just one week ago establishment Republicans went from calling OWS a "mob" to now "sharing their frustrations." What a difference a week makes. I think OWS could be the pivot Democrats need to, as you put it, " move boldly, not timidly, to claim the issue of economic justice as their own." By channeling OWS they can point out the obvious: Most Americans may think of themselves as conservative but they really like what government does. Still remember "Keep Your Hands Off My Medicare" at Tea Party rallies? It's time to use OWS as the rallying cry and expose what being a "conservative" really means to the power brokers inside the Beltway: Take care of the rich and corporate interests. The rest of you? You're on your own.

That's pretty much my view. The OWS protesters are quite rightly wary of being coopted by politicians of any stripe, including Democrats. I think progressive candidates can adopt the cause and some of the language of the movement without actually seeking to join it. 

I agree there is an opportunity, but I think that the media has a responsibility in telling the stories. While we watch these people protest in the streets, they appear aimless. . People, both Republican and Democrat get upset when they talk/hear about the US leaders of business who fail and are rewarded for their failure. We have rotating Boards of Directors who are repeatedly put into power by the banks and pensions that own the shares. These are the decision makers that cut costs and eliminate jobs, and you would be surprised how small of a group it is. I think it would make for good storytelling and put a narrative around what these protests are about.

I agree that we in the media should examine what the protesters mean when they talk about economic justice. If the allegation is that the system is rigged, we need to explore that and explain just how it's rigged -- and by whom.

Do you agree with Tom Joyner's advice reported in today's Post that blacks "not even deal with the facts right now" and support Obama "because he's a black man" out of "racial loyalty"? How can such divisive speech be condoned. I can imagine your outrage if a Mormon called for "racial loyalty" to support Romney, "because he's a white man." Hope there's no double standard.

No, I don't agree with that. Otherwise, I'd have to support Herman Cain.

I really hope that the Democrats take your advice. Of course, since you are a lapdog for them, it is highly likely that they will. Do you really believe that middle America who see the real faces of the OWS mob will embrace them?

If you're anywhere near one of the Occupy protests, you really ought to go out and take a look. You'll find quite a few Middle Americans there.

Do you think there's honestly a way for the Democrats to successfully thread the needle of embracing the message of the OWS protesters (even going so far as to enact legislation that defends the public against corporate greed), without ditching the financial support of the financial industry and in turn losing their ability to compete in national elections?

Titans of finance are going to contribute to candidates who they think will win. I don't think there's any danger that Democrats will go overboard in opposition to Wall Street.

How much of that migration from one side to the other is, do you think, part of the 24-hour news cycle? Seems to me issues, ideas, candidates, etc. get chewed up and spit out much much faster. Have we just accelerated the lifespan of an idea such as OWS? Thanks!

I don't know. Something about OWS has touched a nerve. Will the effect wear off, or will it intensify? With the protests peter out, or will they grow? I really don't know, but by defining its cause so broadly -- economic justice -- the OWS movement has already had more impact than I would have predicted a month ago.

Redistribution? Are you for it? Wall St. execs going to jail? Why haven't you criticized AG Holder? Making top 1% pay more? Their share of total income taxes has doubled since 1980. Forgiving all debts? That would reward conscious decisions that went awry.

If by redistribution you mean progressive taxation, which has been enshrined in our tax code for many decades, then I support it. My guess is that prosecutable crimes were committed in the run-up to the crash, and I wish the Justice Department had pursued criminal investigations more vigorously. The top 1 percent pays a bigger share of total taxes because it captures a bigger share of total income yes, those folks should pay more. And although Thomas Jefferson thought that periodically all debts should be cancelled, I don't. I do believe that some mortgages could and should be adjusted, however. And I don't think those homeowners' decsions were more culpable than those of the bankers who have been lavishly bailed out.

You say you don't think Democrats will go overboard in opposition to Wall Street. Can you clarify what you mean by that? I'm inclined to agree, but would put it more bluntly, and say that the Democrats won't enact (or even push for) legislation that would seriously protect the public from corporate greed; that the Dems are too keen on keeping Wall Street happy. Do you think that D's can be effective for the OWS movement, or do you think they will merely utilize the messaging opportunity to win elections and then maintain the status quo?

That's basically what I mean. What makes OWS so interesting, in my view, is its potential to change the atmosphere -- shift the way we think about the relationships among Wall Street, the larger business community, Washington and the citizenry. That's why I wrote last week that specific policy proposals can wait. If it happens, this will take time.

Increasingly, I have seen the term "false equivalency" bandied about, especially by "progressives/the left," in an effort to reject, as just one example, comparisons between the Tea Party and OWS (example: "Tea Party was 'astroturf' funded by the Koch Brothers", whereas OWS is all "grassroots" and no support from labor unions/George Soros is involved--or so they say). Has "false equivalency" become the latest "talking point" or tactic disseminated by "progressives" to be used to refute such comparisons? It seems to me the tactic is being used more to neutralize or cut off such comparisons rather than as an actual valid argument.

What's invalid about pointing out that one thing is demonstrably different from another -- or about citing established facts? If the Koch brothers bankrolled the Tea Party and George Soros has not bankrolled OWS, then that should be pointed out, right?

When I got my mortgage my bank tried to convince me that I could afford a mortage twice what I ended up asking for. They gave this really wonderful sounding song and dance about how my mortgage would stay the same, but my income would increase, that's the way it's done, etc, etc. I'm so glad I didn't get sucked into that, but I can certainly how others would. I do think people should be responsible, but with banks acting like this and then getting bailed out it just doesn't seem fair. They were being greedy and tried to convince me to play along.

A lot of people did get sucked in. There were years when banks were throwing money at anyone who had a pulse -- mortgages,second mortgages, home equity lines of credit. The banks knew that as soon as the ink was dry they could sell those mortgages and move on to the next set of customers. Everybody made bad decisions, and I don't see why the banks should be absolved when the borrowers get no break.

Do you agree with your colleague's piece this morning about the anti-semitism of the OWSers? I understand disagreement with our country's foreign policy stances, but the only country I saw specifically mentioned on any of the protest signs was Israel.

There should be no place for anti-Semitism in the OWS movement, or anwhere else, and when it surfaces it should be called out, denounced and ejected.

Hi Eugene -- Just to switch gears if you don't mind, but how long do you the Herman Cain "surge" lasting? And when he's done, who's next to surge? Newt? Or maybe it's finally Rick Santorum's turn.

Gingrich and Santorum are known quantities, and I think that if they were going to surge, they'd have done so by now. Like, fifteen years ago. I have no idea how long the Cain surge will last, but there's an upcoming debate on foreign policy and I have a hard time thinking he'll survive that ordeal.

Who do you think will "win" the GOP debate tonight?

The stage is set for a Perry comeback, but I don't think that will happen in a debate. Cain will have to be on the defensive. That leaves Romney, who will remain the only constant in the top tier. Things could be going better for him -- he must think he should have had this thing in the bag by now -- but things could also be going a lot worse. So he probably wins tonight's debate.

Just as the Tea Partiers who hold up signs saying Obama = Hitler should be.



And now, folks, it's precisely the end of my alloted hour. Thanks, as always, for tuning in, and I'll see you again next week.

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Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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