Edwards v. Wal-Mart: Sound Electoral Policy?

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In advance of his announcement today that he would once again run for president, Democrat John Edwards had been spending a great deal of his time and energy immersing himself in one particular issue: Wal-Mart and its alleged mistreatment of its employees.

In particular, Edwards has been a keysupporter of[WakeUpWalMart.com], an activist group with strong ties to labor unions that has led the charge against America's largest retailer. Wal-Mart does not hire union labor, and that is red meat for the liberal base of the Democratic Party.

Edwards was not lucky enough to pick up a great deal of support from labor unions during his 2004 campaign, though this time around all that is likely to change. However, opinion polls indicate that the average American is not all that concerned with the company's labor practices, preferring to focus on the lower prices offered by Wal-Mart instead. In fact, many job hungry individuals don't seem to care at all that Wal-Mart might mistreat its employees. In June, 8,000 applicants applied for the 350 jobs offered by a Wal-Mart in Kearney, N.J. In July, a new store in White Plains offered 400 new jobs and received over 4,200 applications.

Neither Kearney nor White Plains are Republican strongholds, and these stores opened at the height of the anti-Wal-Mart PR blitz. And both stores are booming, which would indicate that people don't like to be told how they should spend their money or how they should earn a living, by Edwards or anybody else, regardless of political affiliation.

In New York City, it is easy to discount the retail cult that is Wal-Mart, since we are blessed with so many options. But If you've ever spent any time in the south, it becomes clear just how much Wal-Mart represents more than just a store, but a way of life. Last November, I visited a Wal-Mart that straddled the city line between Columbus, Georgia and Phenix City, Alabama. In the middle of a weekday, the store was packed like Times Square on New Year's Eve. Even in the suburbs of Cleveland, the Wal-Marts I visited were always busy, with shoppers purchasing everything from food to major electronics.

These are loyal customers, and would likely turn and run from Edwards if they thought their low price retailer would be put in jeopardy by his presidency, even if they shared his party affiliation. In the grand electoral scheme of things, the interests of the tens of thousands of shoppers each Wal-Mart serves will likely outweigh the lack of union benefits for those 350 employees, many of whom do not share Edwards' feelings about their employer anyway.

Besides, Edwards has already given his opponents a way to push back against his anti-Wal-Mart crusade. Last month, an Edwards staffer dropped the former Senator's name in order to cut the line at a Wal-Mart in Raleigh, North Carolina and purchase a Playstation 3 for Edwards' family. Edwards acknowledged the gaffe, blaming it on a young staff member who was unaware of Wal-Mart's policies. But the company pounced on Edwards as quickly as it could.

"While the rest of America's working families are waiting patiently in line, Senator Edwards wants to cut to the front," said the Wal-Mart statement. Presumably, at least one of his opponents will expand on this sentiment.

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