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Greenfield: Running against Wal-Mart

Does the big-box retailer deserve to be a political target?

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst

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Wal-Mart has become a favorite target for Democratic politicians, but the company is starting to fight back.

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- It may not be the most noble of notions, but one of the most useful assets for a politician is the right adversary: illegal immigrants, corporate polluters, street criminals, lazy bureaucrats, welfare cheats, rich tax cheats.

But what about a store?

Democrats seem to think one store in particular will make a fine political target. That's what Sen. Joe Biden was doing when he attended an anti-Wal-Mart rally in Des Moines, Iowa -- site of the first presidential caucuses, not so incidentally.

Biden declared: "Wal-Mart's formula is how they can survive a race to the bottom," as he decried their low wages and the size and nature of their health benefits.

The day before, Sen. Evan Bayh, another likely presidential candidate, denounced Wal-Mart's wage and benefit structure as "emblematic" of the middle-class squeeze.

Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards have also been critical, and Sen. Hillary Clinton, who was on the board of Wal-Mart back in her former Arkansas home, returned a $5,000 Wal-Mart campaign contribution.

The targeting of the nation's largest employer has gone beyond political sound bites.

State and local governments -- New York City; Maryland; Chicago, Illinois, among others -- have passed so-called "Big Box" laws requiring huge stores -- often affecting Wal-Mart and one or two others stores like Wal Mar t-- to provide higher wages and health benefits to their workers. A judge has struck down Maryland's law; Mayor Richard Daley has hinted he may veto Chicago's City Council bill.

Wal-Mart calls these efforts "a shortsighted political strategy that will backfire," and pointedly notes that "it is our responsibility to let [our employees] know when a politician speaks out for or against our company." The company argues its practices save shoppers an average $2,300 a year, and claim a high level of employee satisfaction.

So what's going on here? On the one hand, lower-income shoppers benefit from Wal-Mart's low prices. On the Friday after Thanksgiving last year, 10 million Americans shopped at Wal-Mart in just six hours.

On the other hand, Wal-Mart's wage and benefit structure, its troubles over hiring illegal immigrants, and charges some workers have been forced to work off the clock have made it and its 1.3 million workers Target Number One for organized labor. Unions have seen a sharp decline in their rolls, especially among private sector workers. And organized labor, in return, remains one of the key elements of the Democratic Party's financial and voter turnout base.

As for the Democrats, they've seen a steady erosion in their blue-collar, working-class support. Once upon a time, Democratic icons trumpeted their opposition to wealthy interests. Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed at his 1933 Inaugural "the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization..."

And after President Kennedy battled US Steel over price hikes in 1962, he was asked at a press conference if he was worried that big business "had him where they wanted."

With a huge grin, he replied: "I can't believe I'm where big business wants me."

But in recent years, national security and traditional values issues have changed voter patterns. In 2004, Bush beat Kerry among blue-collar low- and middle-income whites 54 percent to 46 percent.

This year, Democrats seem to believe that they can win back many of these voters by hitting basic bread-and-butter issues like low wages and health care.

And they appear to believe they can turn a symbol of low prices into a symbol of economic injustice.

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