WASHINGTON • As protests aimed at shaming Wall Street continued near New York's financial heart, they raised a tantalizing prospect for beleaguered liberals: Their side may, unexpectedly, be witnessing the redefinition of a coming election year that was supposed to be all about an "enthusiasm gap" for Democrats against charged-up Republicans.
President Barack Obama, asked at a White House news conference Thursday whether the Occupy Wall Street movement had potential as a Tea Party for the left, ducked that question. But his vice president drew a direct connection between the two ideologically disparate protests.
The new movement, which has spread from Manhattan to other cities, has "a lot in common with the Tea Party," Vice President Joe Biden said, speaking across town at a forum sponsored by the Atlantic magazine. Both, he said, grew out of a profound sense that the political system is badly out of whack. "We were bailing out the big guys," he said, while failing to fix the problems of hard-pressed, ordinary Americans.
With that possibility comes danger. Tea Party voters have proved to be a decidedly mixed blessing for Republicans. They helped defeat Democratic candidates in 2010 but now are pulling GOP presidential candidates to the right in a way that may prove problematic in next year's general election. Some Democratic strategists see a similar threat to their efforts to woo middle-of-the-road voters if the Democrats get too close to a street movement with radical elements that remains highly unpredictable.
Some of the risks were evident Wednesday night, when anti-Wall Street demonstrators clashed with baton-wielding police in New York, resulting in 23 arrests and video footage of authorities using force to subdue protesters.
"You don't have to be a genius to see that you can overlay what is going on with Occupy Wall Street to energize and mobilize a Democratic base," said Steve Rosenthal, a longtime liberal strategist. "So from that standpoint, it has enormous potential."
At the moment, there isn't even a name for a broader movement that might evolve out of the protests. "The 99 percent" is one catchphrase used by demonstrators to contrast themselves with the 1 percent of Americans at the top of the income scale.
Distinctions are drawn by liberals between the origins of the anti-Wall Street drive, which they say is more spontaneous and authentic than a Tea Party movement that was boosted into existence by Fox News, a favored news source for conservatives. Another difference: Tea Party followers were focused on one issue — cutting government spending — while Occupy Wall Street is amorphous in its aims.
Beyond that, there are broad and potentially growing similarities. Both movements are decentralized and nonhierarchical, driven largely by an alienated and outraged citizenry that favors the same two-word phrase: "fed up."
Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, an anti-corporate advocacy group, said it was "quite possible" that Occupy Wall Street could evolve into a political movement along the lines of the Tea Party. He pointed to the recent decision by unions to join the protests, a development that could support the diffuse movement in the same way that several well-funded conservative organizations have aided Tea Party groups.