While visiting Norwalk, Conn., recently, I chatted with a local tea party member angry at the state of the country generally and my politics specifically or what he thought my politics were. Anyhow, without any prompting, he opined that the leftist Occupy movement holding up traffic posed more of a threat to American stability than his rightist tea party colleagues' summer stunt pushing the country to the edge of the financial abyss.
I passed on wrestling with this guy because he was a decent, hardworking American. But more to the point, he didn't seem to fully understand the nightmarish consequences of a default on America's debt obligations. Or he thought that the "patriots" could play their game of chicken knowing that adults would come by at the last minute to pull America back from the precipice -- which is what happened.
The point is that voters far more moderate than this gentleman react angrily to demonstrators piling new frustration on their already harried days. With the weather warming up north, the Democrats would do well to direct the activists' energies in productive directions -- if the Occupy folks want to head there, which is not at all clear.
For the record, I believe that people who stop traffic should be arrested. Like most Americans (according to polls), I agreed with the bulk of the Occupy movement's complaints but didn't find their encampments agreeable. For a few days, perhaps, but as time went on the tent cities became a nuisance. The diverse participants included upstanding and politically engaged liberals but also the homeless and the antisocial. They also have rights -- though not to take public spaces away from the public.
The Occupy movement did draw attention to the growing power and wealth of a tiny economic elite, many of whom got where they are by wringing thousands of jobs out of corporate America.
One such member is the very likely Republican candidate for president, Mitt Romney -- the "vulture capitalist." (Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry called him that, not me.)
The problem for Democrats is that unlike the tea party people, the Occupy movement never evolved into a political force. It just erected tents, talked to the media and, in some cases, delighted in irritating citizens who would otherwise be on their side.
With the camps largely gone, news coverage has plunged, leaving the group bereft of attention. In November, 14 percent of stories covered by the U.S. news media were about the movement, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. That percentage has fallen to well below 1 percent.
Either Occupy goes out of business, resumes setting up new camps or becomes politically involved. For Democrats, the second option could be problematic for reasons stated and the third a mixed blessing in the way the tea party passions are for the Republicans. Both groups harbor a hostility toward party establishments. And the tea party has forced Republican candidates to take radical stances, damaging their ability to win over moderate voters.
As my tea party friend made very clear, traffic jams caused by demonstrations are in-your-face insults. No point arguing with him that the economic catastrophe to which his group shoved America terrifyingly close would have caused far greater inconvenience.
Ideally, Democrats would funnel the Occupy movement people's interests toward advancing their prospects in the upcoming elections. Chances are, many will find nonpolitical things to do, which would be second best. Third best -- and really not good at all -- would be re-erecting tents where they don't belong.