Judging by the incoherence of their agenda and the relatively small number of participants, you could say the Occupy Wall Street protesters aren’t serious. Their spirit is captured in this anecdote from New York’s Zuccotti Park, reported in the New York Times: “One woman gave a pep talk to what looked like a new recruit. ‘It’s about taking down systems, it doesn’t matter what you’re protesting,’ she said. ‘Just protest.’ ”
“Just protest.” As we said: not serious. Even idiotic.
Occupy Wall Street may peter out and have no lasting significance whatsoever. And the respectful coverage by some in the media, the earnest attempts by bien-pensant commentators to guide the protesters to a coherent policy agenda, the evident nostalgia of Baby Boomers for the palmy days of their youth in the ’60s, the painful envy on the left of the success of the Tea Party—it’s all somewhat comical.
However: In politics, sometimes you have to take idiocy seriously. The complaints in the ’60s against life in oppressive Amerika were childish. The nuclear freeze movement of the early ’80s was foolish. The anti-Iraq war movement of a few years ago was both silly (“Bush lied, people died”) and disgraceful (“General Betray Us”). But movements can have political impact even if they aren’t worth much morally or intellectually or even numerically. And while one would hope the main effect of such flaky movements would be to discredit their allies, it doesn’t always work out that way. “General Betray Us” did not, for instance, prevent a big Democratic win in 2008.
Speaking of that win, we would note that Occupy Wall Street has a huge practical problem: the man who now occupies the White House. The president of the United States is Barack Hussein Obama (he’s suddenly taken to stressing his middle name, as he rallies his troops for 2012 by reminding his supporters how allegedly courageous it was for them to support him in 2008). It’s as if John Kennedy had been a first-term president in 1967, running for reelection. The New Left surely would have had a tougher time mobilizing against Kennedy than it did against Lyndon Baines Johnson. The reaction to the protests by the liberal wing of the Democratic party would have been more mixed, the “movement” would have had more difficulty taking off, and the New Left’s ascendancy over the next few years would have been more problematic.
Still, the fact that Obama is in the White House doesn’t guarantee that the protests fizzle. Nor is their silliness a guarantee of impotence or insignificance.
How should conservatives react? Our shorthand advice would be to follow the example of Reagan more than that of Nixon. Nixon succeeded in mobilizing middle America against the spoiled rich kids protesting—but in policy terms Nixon as president made concessions to the left, and failed to advance any sort of bold conservative policy or political agenda.
Reagan, by contrast, channeled discontent with the status quo into a conservative agenda of big reform. His alternative to left-wing economic demagoguery wasn’t the status quo, it was the Kemp-Roth tax cuts and then tax simplification. His alternative to the left’s critique of big-government, interest-group liberalism was a thorough critique of the pathologies of the liberal welfare state. His response to the nuclear freeze movement was not to defend Mutual Assured Destruction, it was SDI.
As for the George W. Bush administration, it had elements of both Nixon and Reagan—but went mostly into a defensive crouch in its second term before the antiwar onslaught, with the notable and admirable exception of the surge in Iraq.
A surge is in fact the way to go—an intellectual, policy, and political countersurge to both the Obama administration and to Occupy Wall Street. The protesters don’t like crony capitalism? Offer bold proposals to reform it. They don’t like Wall Street? Conservatives should offer policies to benefit Main Street and seek to curb Wall Street abuses. The protesters don’t like the glorification of money? Nor do conservatives, who put God, country, and family before business, and who respect the military, churches, active citizens, and stay-at-home moms more than bond traders (no offense, bond traders!).
Is anyone in the GOP up for a Reaganite agenda? There are some prominent Republicans whose records in office suggest they could be effective carriers of the torch—Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Mike Pence, and Jim DeMint, to name a few. None of them has chosen to try to fill Reagan’s shoes in 2012. Mitt Romney, leading the presidential pack, is (understandably) playing it safe—running the 1980 George H.W. Bush campaign without a Reagan to compete against him while the other candidates seem to be playing the roles of John Connally, Phil Crane, Harold Stassen, and John Anderson.
Meanwhile, the Republican leadership in the House is bogged down (understandably) in managing its own fractious caucus, and in tactical battles with President Obama. The Republicans in the Senate are even more preoccupied with skirmishes with Harry Reid. Has any big idea emerged from the Hill since Paul Ryan’s budget? Has the presidential campaign had a single memorable speech—or even a memorable soundbite?
There is still time. And the fecklessness of the Obama administration, and the idiocy of the left, may mean that conservatives can get away with playing prevent defense over the next year. But the Wall Street protests serve as a useful reminder of the volatile and unpredictable nature of politics at a moment like this—and a reminder that it’s generally better to be on offense.
When you’re on offense, though, it helps to have a quarterback.