Plates Still Shifting

October 18, 2011 12:21 p.m.

A week ago I noted that little more than a month after Washington’s collective deficit-busting trainwreck the national conversation seemed to have shifted dramatically. The deficit super-committee itself still drives forward toward likely failure. But the relative lack of press attention to its work is actually quite striking, given how soon it will have to report and the massive power it potentially wields over decades of the American future.

It first dawned on me when I saw that whatever else it has accomplished, the president’s never-ending jobs bill tour really has changed the national political conversation. The bill hasn’t passed. But the White House couldn’t have had any illusions that congressional Republicans would pass anything. It’s also had no discernible impact yet on the president’s job approval. But the fulcrum of the debate has changed. And you know that’s happened when Speaker Boehner starts defensively piping up that they’re all over the jobs issue too.When I really knew we were on new ground though is when I heard Eric Cantor was delivering a speech about income inequality. I mean, really: Eric Cantor giving a speech on income inequality. Yes, the new pressing issue of income inequality is another urgent reason to pass tax cuts and deregulate the entire economy. But that’s not the point: the terrain itself has shifted.

Who’s responsible? There’s no question the Occupy Wall Street movement has played a significant role. But the president’s shift has too. The reality, I think, is that the two have dovetailed together in a really hard to have predicted way.

The political class is now churning a debate about whether Democrats should ‘get in bed with’ or position themselves with the #OWS protestors. And many activists on both sides of the equation are pressing yeses and nos. But I think this sort of misses what’s happening on the ground.

Conservatives are trying to press the point that the #OWS protestors are crazy hippie freaks and anybody who speaks their name without condemnation will get burned. And if you were down on Wall Street three or four weeks ago, most of the folks actually were crazy hippie freaks. (That really can matter with a broad cross section of the country. And one interesting detail from the poll showing broad support for #OWS among New Yorkers was that support for the protests themselves diminished as you went down the income scale, not up.) The really revealing development though is that that hasn’t seemed to matter particularly. Yes, you can go and interview kids down there and there are some outlandish ideas. And you’ll get the ANSWER type groups showing up. But the simple standing up and saying, this system isn’t working for most of us has been resonant enough that it’s overwhelmed a lot of that and helped create a political space for a different kind of conversation.

That’s why I think the questions about getting close or not close to the movement for elected politicians is sort of beside the point. I’m not sure they have to. Anymore than to say, “Yeah, these issues matter to lots of Americans. And they matter to me too.”

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