It was just a week ago that Republicans tried to denigrate the Occupy Wall Street protesters as a “dangerous” “mob” who needed to “get a job” rather than “pit Americans against Americans.” Then they must have gotten the polling. So now, they’re changing their tune. Here’s Mitt Romney:

I don’t worry about the top one percent. I don’t stay up nights worrying about ‘gee we need to help them.’ I don’t worry about that. They’re doing just fine by themselves. I worry about the 99 percent in America. I want America, once again, to be the best place in the world to be middle-class. I want to have a strong and vibrant and prosperous middle-class. And so I look at what’s happening on Wall Street and my own view is, boy I understand how those people feel…The people in this country are upset.

And then, the distributor of the “mob” comments, Eric Cantor:

“People are upset, and they are justifiably frustrated,” Cantor told reporters at his weekly Capitol briefing. “They are out of work. The economy is not moving. Their sense of security for the future is not clear at all. People are afraid, and I get it.” [...]

Asked on Tuesday whether he regretted his earlier characterization of protest movement, Cantor said his criticism was aimed at elected leaders and others who sought to pit Americans against Americans.

“What I was attempting to say is that the action and statements of elected leaders in this town condoning the pitting of Americans against Americans is not very helpful right now,” Cantor said. “What we need to do is come together as one, all Americans. To sit here and vilify one sector of the economy, industries, et cetera, is not helpful. People are lacking confidence right now, and we have elected leaders stirring the pot, if you will. That’s not good.”

So on the “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” scale, we are somewhere between number 3 and number 4. Republicans are trying Plan B, having failed with the outright mockery and demonization. They’ve moved to understanding the protests, but fully on their terms. They want to use the anger and frustration shared by the 99% movement and channel it against the President and his policies.

The truth is that no one party or one agenda is being held up for scorn by the Occupy Wall Street protests. It’s the entire system, where corporate interests hold sway over legislation and politicians are bought handmaidens of those interests. This telling anecdote, from several years earlier, hits virtually the whole story – and it’s a leading Democrat, in this case, who is the clueless one:

In the Spring of 2000, my friend and former colleague Zack Exley arrived in Washington, DC, to observe the protests that had engulfed the city during the World Bank’s annual meeting. Driving into Washington from the airport, out the window of his taxi he saw “a teenage white girl with long dreadlocks who wore a homemade t-shirt proclaiming: WE NEED A NEW SYSTEM.”

Later that evening he attended a party at the home of then-Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers along with “ambassadors, politicians, esteemed professors and what seemed like the entire combined senior economist staff of the IMF, World Bank and Treasury.”

It turned out Larry Summers had seen the girl too and was eagerly telling his guests about an interaction he had with her:

And so I asked the girl: ‘What is this new system that you want? Tell me about it!’ And the girl had nothing. Nothing! She had no fucking clue what this magical new system was supposed to be. No one is saying that there aren’t problems with the world economy the way it is today. But these kids out there — they don’t know what they want!

“Mr. Secretary,” said Zack. “You’ve got 50 economics PhDs in this room who pretty much run the world economy. And you’re asking that girl for a better system? Aren’t the solutions your job? You admit billions are living in hell, but it’s up to that girl to fix it?”

Summers chuckled and the conversation moved on.

The supreme arrogance of Larry Summers is no real surprise. But it’s widely shared by the entire political class. It’s certainly amusing to see Republicans backpedal on the protests and try to channel the anger and frustration against their opponent in the 2012 elections, but this anger cannot be channeled in that way. This is a loud scream of dissent, telling the political class that they have failed and that they need to set things right or stop serving as the political class. Fake shows of empathy or haughty shrugs that protesters don’t have every answer under the sun will not cut it.