Over the weekend, Newt Gingrich said this about the Occupy Wall Street movement:
All the Occupy movement starts with the premise that we all owe them everything ... That is a pretty good symptom of how much the left has collapsed as a moral system, and why you need to reassert something as simple as saying to them: "Go get a job, right after you take a bath.
Wrong answer. For the foreseeable future, the Republican presidential candidates are going to get asked about the protesters, and telling them to go take a bath is not a great response. There's an opportunity for Republicans here, and the smart ones will handle the protests more gracefully than Newt did.
Having a broad and growing middle class is something every Republican should support; a vibrant and prosperous center is good for our democracy and our economy. "We are the 99 percent" speaks to that ideal, and there's a great case to be made for seeking to alleviate the income inequality that has kept middle class incomes stagnant for the last three decades. When the Occupy Wall Street-ers stay on that message, it resonates with most Americans.
What doesn't resonate is the reported violence at the "Occupy" camps. Most of the television coverage from the various cities across the country includes shots of filthy living conditions, fights between protesters, and concerns about women being assaulted. At the Occupy Oakland tent city, there was a fatal shooting. A week of police crackdowns hasn't helped; images of a veteran being beaten up and an elderly woman doused in pepper spray were horrible. The latest video of police spraying down protesters at UC Davis may have energized the left, but it's making the rest of us recoil in horror at the whole scene. I wouldn't let my teenage daughters anywhere near the protests out of concern for their safety, and I think most other moms would probably agree. Last night on the evening news I was watching while cooking dinner, the latest crime report from Occupy Wall Street was followed by bloody footage from the street battles in Egypt. Is that us next?
Occupy Wall Street is quickly losing the support of hardworking middle class neighbors and commuters who have to deal with the violence, the noise, the filth, and the police presence. Broader middle class support for their once-noble goals is fading fast.
One of Occupy Wall Street's supporters, Van Jones, says it's time to move to "phase two." He's right. Republicans should point out that Occupy Wall Street would be wise to take a page from the Tea Party playbook. Organized rallies should replace dangerous camp outs. Like the Tea Party did, Occupy-ers should be recruiting candidates and drawing up a legislative agenda. They need to make clear exactly what they stand for. Right now they seem to be protesting just about everything and everybody.
If Occupy Wall Street organizers believe that they will win the contest of ideas, let them put forth a slate of candidates who want to represent the "99 percent." If their proposals include pro-growth, pro-entrepreneurial solutions aimed at creating prosperity and opportunity for middle class families, they'll win elections; if they argue for radical, punitive wealth redistribution aimed at punishing the wealthy, I suspect they won't.
If they want to win elections, Occupy Wall Street needs to persuade independent voters that their ideas are mainstream. Right now, they're not doing that.
As there was when the Tea Party movement first began two years ago, there's a lot of energy among the Occupy Wall Street-ers and certainly a lot of media attention being paid to them. Republicans shouldn't dismiss the movement with snide comments—instead, they should take the opportunity to talk about serious policies to rebuild the American Dream among the middle class. Telling the protesters to "take a bath" just makes Republicans look, well, all washed up.