The High Cost of Bashing Wal-Mart; Another Democratic Miscalculation

Congeries of consultants, packs of pollsters, stretch-limos of strategists, and what have we got: Wal-Mart as the enemy.

I'm just getting around to taming my amazement at a New York Times story from August 17th, which described the demonizing of the Bastard out of Bentonville by the wise men of Democratic Party, summer 2006. Specifically, the Times was reporting a speech made by Joe Biden, who is clearly in need of a crowd-stirring message, since he's never been able to awaken anyone beyond the bookers on the Sunday morning chat shows.

Adam Nagourney and Michael Barbaro of the Times wrote: "Among Democrats, Mr. Biden is not alone. Across Iowa this week and across much of the country this month, Democratic leaders have found a new rallying cry that many of them say could prove powerful in the midterm elections and into 2008: denouncing Wal-Mart for what they say are substandard wages and health care benefits." Not to mention its anti-union policies.

The story goes on to note that "...what is striking about this campaign is the ideological breadth of the Democrats who have joined in." The breadth includes Hillary Clinton (who was a member of Wal-Mart's board, when she lived in Arkansas and the associated served her purpose), Joe Lieberman Ned Lamont and also united around this not-inconvenient target

When that many Democrats agree about a political tactic, you can bet a case of Sam's Choice that it's a bad idea. In fact, I can't think of a worse strategy than focusing the wrath of the party on Wal-Mart. It's a path to defeat, one that continues the party's failure to define itself around anything resembling a plan and a vision. And it's yet another example of the leadership's curiously defiant determination to position the party as a grab-bag of grievances.

Let me just quickly say that I am no apologist for Wal-Mart. Here's a link to a story I wrote for FastCompany.com that takes the company to task, and offers up some constructive solutions for them to take.

What's politically Kryptonic about making Wal-Mart a central issue? Here are a few of the answers:

1.It brings up the worst of the old lefty imprint. I'm not the first to say this, and I hope I won't be the last. Bashing America's largest company is redolent of a messianic extremism that will not bring back the Reagan Democrats. It sends a scary message to the millions of small business owners and entrepreneurs the Democrats needs to win.

Nor will treating Wal-Mart like it's Hezbollah - as with the ludicrously symbolic gesture of Hillary Clinton returning a "tainted" $5,000 contribution - encourage the kind of engagement that accomplishes anything. Compare that with the way in which environmental groups have sat down at the table with BP and others in an effort to reduce emissions.

2.It's hypocritical. There are a lot of companies who are worse corporate citizens than Wal-Mart, whether it comes to health insurance coverage or being the agent of child labor around the world, or energy policy. And when it comes to tobacco, although the Republicans take more nicotine dollars, the Democrats have their hands out, too.

3.It's a distraction from the real work the Democrats need to do in creating a coherent narrative. They've got strong and popular issues - opposition to the war, stem cell research, an administration that acts in desperate secrecy, millions who haven't participated in the selective boom - but there is no integration of the message. Check out the home page of their website - democrats.org - and tell me if this is an organization with a sharp and focused story to tell.

4.It's not even the best way to address the widening income gap. Let's talk about structural issues like education, tax breaks for wealthy corporations, unregulated hedge funds, and yes, the need for a living wage -- but let's not make Wal-Mart the entire axis of evil all by itself.

5.It's too late. Wal-Mart has seen the green light, even Al Gore has praised their environmental commitment and embrace of sustainability. Geez, they've even joined the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. The company is already the largest seller of organic milk, and wants to "democratize"organic food by making it only 10% more expensive than conventional grub.

And, as the Wall Street Journal wrote in a front page story this weekend, Wal-Mart has launched a charm offensive with Democrats. They're "sweetening health-care benefits for workers" among other initiatives, and although they haven't satisfied Jesse Jackson or Representative Rangel, the Journal quotes Paul Braithwaite, executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, as saying "Communication is good. It would be nice if other companies, such as Target, Kohls, Sears and others that hire African-Americans, and where African-Americans are consumers, would seek the same kind of dialogue."

The story also quotes Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. While he's understandingly "skeptical of many of the company's environmental promises, he also acknowledges the improvement. 'We are excited by examples where a company can do well by doing good...I would love to have everybody else copy Wal-Mart' when it comes to reducing oil consumption."

I can't think of a single national election where the Democrats gained any real ground by taking the evil corporation route. And the choice of Wal-Mart over Halliburton or Bechtel is a curious one. Which leads us to one unavoidable conclusion: Wal-Mart has learned and changed, but the Democrats haven't.