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Politics

Where the Wall Street Protests Might Matter

By tapping into discontent, the new movement might lift Obama, Democrats, in 2012 races. But the road is long and obstacles abound.

Does the simmering anti-Wall Street sentiment represent a moment or the birth of a movement?

For now, it’s closer to the former. The protest groups in New York City and elsewhere are loosely organized and have eschewed a formal political agenda.

But conditions for a lasting coalition are ideal, given widespread griping about income gaps, debit card fees, job prospects, underwater mortgages and a slew of other grievances, large and small.

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So expect the protests to grow and spread, tapping into the deep well of American discontent and altering the political landscape for next year, much as the tea party movement did in 2010.

Next year’s elections, with the White House, control of the Senate and every House seat up for grabs, is shaping up as a clash of cultures: tea partyers vs. the Occupy Wall Street crowd, fighting for the minds — and votes — of those in between.

It’s more than just the haves against the have-nots. And it’s not, as some are trying to portray it, a fight over capitalism.

It’s really about Washington, not Wall Street, a showdown over the size and reach of government that will shape policy for at least the rest of the decade.

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The ultimate success of the anti-Wall Street movement hinges on its finding a dance partner. Don’t be surprised if labor unions step up their backing, looking to cut in after a period of declining influence and diminishing membership numbers. Other liberal groups may get involved, too, as they sense an opportunity to fortify a coalition that has fallen on difficult times since the heady days of President Obama’s election three years ago.

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But there’s a potential downside for the movement. Linking too closely to some specific causes on the left may cost the protesters some public support, much the way the tea party lost some early backing by identifying too closely with the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

As the anti-Wall Street sentiment spreads, look for the GOP’s united stand against tax hikes to crumble — eventually. Republicans will hold their ground in next November’s debt cutting negotiations, but that will only fuel public anger and force a preelection GOP retreat in 2012. Fighting against higher taxes for millionaires is too big a risk in an election year if Republicans have any hope of broadening their appeal to independents and moderate Democrats.

Both parties will agree to cut the corporate tax rate, but probably not until 2013. In return, Congress will raise revenue by eliminating some popular deductions.

But protesters won’t get far trying to curb big business’s sway in Washington. Efforts to restrict campaign contributions from corporations are doomed. Both parties count on money from wealthy donors to fund their reelection bids. No major overhaul will happen as long as the Senate remains so evenly divided, no matter which party wins the White House or controls the House.

Also, bids to limit executive compensation will fail. Most elected officials have roots in the private sector and are reluctant to mandate any kind of ceiling. They’ll count on the higher tax rate for millionaires to tamp down protester outrage.

In political terms, the president might end up the biggest winner. The tea partyers already have energized the GOP. Now the anti-Wall Streeters are reengaging the young and restless Americans who helped Obama win in 2008. Obama’s challenge is to keep them fired up without alienating others in the year between now and Election Day.

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