Tea party leaders grapple with ‘Occupy Wall Street’

Steven Nelson Associate Editor
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The “Occupy Wall Street” protest movement, based in New York City and inspiring similar protests across the country, has been described as the left’s response to the tea party. But do the two movements share any common ground?

According to Tea Party Patriots National Chairman Mark Meckler, the answer is an emphatic “no.”

“These are law breaking people,” Meckler told The Daily Caller. “We have nothing in common with them other than we are all American citizens. My read on the news is that they do not even know what they are protesting.”

Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips agreed. “I see very little in the way of commonalities between the two groups,” Phillips told TheDC. “The Occupy Wall Street protesters act mostly as a mob, without any real coherent explanation of their grievances.”

“The protesters are upset about bailouts but they want to see that money used on more social programs, where the tea party objects to the government bailing out businesses,” Phillips explained. “The tea party thinks that money should go back to the people as tax refunds or should never be taxed in the first place.”

According to Phillips, “The ultimate goal of the tea party is a reduction in the size of government and a return to constitutional bounds. The goal of these people is ultimately a socialist revolution.”

Tea Party Express co-founder Sal Russo, however, offered a more nuanced assessment of the protesters.

The tea party movement, according to Russo, can trace its roots to the Ross Perot campaign of the early 1990s, which he said contained “a strong dose of opposition to crony capitalism.”

“I think you find that the left and the right come together on that, kind of for different reasons, but come to the same conclusion that government ought not to be picking winners and losers,” Russo told TheDC.

Russo couldn’t recall any confrontations between tea party supporters and the police, nevermind on a scale similar to Saturday’s march over the Brooklyn Bridge, where 700 demonstrators were arrested.

There have been 301 Tea Party Express-sponsored rallies, Russo said. The only police encounter of note was when a college student in Boston attempted to pelt Sarah Palin with eggs. “I chose not to press charges, he was just a college kid who did a stupid thing and I didn’t want to burden him with a jail record,” Russo said.

On Friday, Texas Rep. Ron Paul — an inspiration to many tea party supporters — expressed concern when asked by Reason magazine about an incident where NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna was caught on film gratuitously shooting pepper spray at female protesters.

“That means government doesn’t like to be receiving any criticism at all,” Paul said. “And my argument is, government should be in the open — the people’s privacy ought to be protected. So I don’t like it.”

Signs reading “End the Fed” — a popular catchphrase for Paul supporters — were visible during the Brooklyn Bridge protest.

Russo said that Paul’s recent statements, particularly regarding the killing of American-born al Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki, demonstrate there is “a wide divergence on foreign policy, on social issues, on cultural issues” within the tea party movement.

“The one commonality of all the tea party groups is concern about the intrusiveness and growth of the federal government and the skyrocketing national debt,” Russo said. “That’s the unifying theme, once you get into foreign policy and how much you should cut the defense budget or are you for or against sugar subsidies or ethanol subsidies, then there’s wide divergence of opinion.”

“It’s not at all a monolithic movement as sometimes it gets characterized,” Russo continued.

“We’re pretty ecumenical in the sense that we tolerate a very wide disparity of viewpoints within the movement, and even on the economic issues — we tend to be very much on the pro-growth side some of them are more austerity-oriented,” he said.

Are the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters welcome to join the tea party?

Perhaps, Russo said. “Our primary issue is opposition to the size and intrusiveness and cost of the federal government. That’s the one litmus test we have. We’re pretty open on social issues and foreign policy issues, but you have to agree on that,” he explained.

“I don’t know what their view is on that point,” Russo conceded. “A lot of the left that opposes crony capitalism wants to see some sort of big government, and that would be incompatible because we’re a very much small-government, pro-growth and for economic freedom in our approach.”

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