Tim Pool describes Monday's protests by Occupy Wall Street on its one-year anniversary
Two years ago, in the midterm Congressional elections, the Republican Party won a historic victory, with even President Obama declaring that Democrats had taken a “shellacking". The GOP regained control of the House of Representatives by taking 63 seats, the largest mid-term gain by either party since 1938, and also came close to a Senate majority with a six-seat swing.
The bare numbers bear repeating today because that election, like this Presidential campaign, was dominated by concerns with the economy. A pre-election Gallup poll noted, “Economic concerns are paramount, with a majority of Americans rating the economy, jobs, and federal spending (along with government corruption) as extremely important.” The GOP landslide was the outcome of "Republican advantages on these economic matters...from a low of +5 on jobs to a high of +15 on federal spending".
This scenario, of a triumphant Republican challenge to the incumbent Democrat over the stagnant economy, is still is the template for Mitt Romney's campaign. Romney defeated his rivals for the GOP nomination because he convinced conservative voters that he had the best record, as a successful businessman, to highlight President Obama's failures in rebuilding the American economy.
Unfortunately for Romney, the electorate are not buying his central message. On Thursday, The Washington Post provided a long list of poll numbers that were depressing reading for the Romney campaign. An example, with the Post using italics for emphasis: "In this week’s Fox News swing state polls, Obama holds an advantage on the question of who would improve the economy and jobs in Ohio (50-43), in Virginia (49-44), and in Florida (49-46)."
Romney can still win this election, but the question that must be roiling his already shaky campaign team: what went wrong with the foundation of their electoral strategy? Why is their candidate not heading for victory in a continuing economic malaise when he promises a turnabout in the country's fortunes? Or, as The Post put the same question:
In this week’s NBC/WSJ national poll, disapproval of Obama on the economy is higher than approval, but he still is ahead on who is better prepared to lead in the next four years, 47-36. The past is not necessarily coloring views of the future. Why?
The Post's answer is that more Americans are slowly coming to the conclusion that the economy will improve in the next four years under President Obama.
It is a valid conclusion, but to turn it around: what has happened since 2010 that means voters are prepared to re-elect a President whose economic record is so unpopular?
Occupy Wall Street is what happened.
Occupy is not the only reason why Romney's economic narrative has faltered. Indeed, in the larger electoral picture, it is only a small contribution to the GOP's poor campaign, but Occupy did something that observers have failed to appreciate in their rush to dismiss the movement as a fad or failure. The protesters changed the background, even as they failed to build a mass of participation, against which the contending economic visions of Obama and Romney are now framed.
Occupy changed the parameters of the debate on the economy. In 2010, any mention by Democrats of the mess they inherited from the previous administration was dismissed as whining, brought on by ineffective policies to fix the economy. Now, in 2012, the electorate recognise that the President has been handicapped in his efforts to fix the economy not just by an intransigent Congress, but by an economic situation that defied traditional means of securing a recovery.
The Washington Post poll shows that President Obama is ahead by 47-36 with voters considering who is better prepared to lead for the next four years on the economy. Although it cannot be quantified, that margin owes a large thank you to Occupy, for setting the stage for Obama's theme --- a vote for Romney will be a return to the failed policies of the past, a return to the political environment where a rapacious Wall Street was allowed to gorge itself on the profits swindled from Main Street America. If Occupy had not happened, it is doubtful that there would have been the general outrage against the financial elite, one leading the conservative Economist magazine to label the class as "Banksters" and to declare that the “culture of banking” must change.
Occupy has also helped Obama's chances by hammering home the point that the elite have not suffered through this recession. Instead they prospered, and still prosper, and Mitt Romney is now the caricature of the self-interested wealthy concerned only with the means of protecting their fortunes. The recent attacks on his record at Bain and his refusal to release more than two years of his income tax records have gained traction because he epitomises the disdain that wealthy Americans have for the opinion of everyone else.
Can I prove that Occupy have helped change the fundamentals of the debate over the economy in 12 months, enough to account for the reversal in Republicans' fortunes when criticising President Obama since 2010? Possibly not. But there is a precedent for the influence of an outside movement in unsettling and maybe defeating a Republican candidate.
In the 1992 Presidential election, Ross Perot ran as a third-party choice. Perot drew support equally from the Republican President George H.W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. But in the spring and summer of 1992, as Michael Barone noted, "the center-right Perot effectively depoliticized the critique of President Bush and enabled the absolute demolition of the latter’s job approval. This was critical to softening the incumbent for the fall."
Where Occupy Wall Street succeeded was its introduction of the concept of "We are the 99%" into political discourse. With that simple slogan, they helped neutralise the arguments Republicans used in 2010 to secure their Congressional gains.
At this point in time President Obama is not winning this election. But Mitt Romney is losing it. And the question he faces --- especially after the damage of the leaked video of his remarks to Republican donors --- is to what extent his failure to resonate with the US voter is the result of his perceived connection to the 1%.