Uber hired political strategist David Plouffe this week to run what amounts to a national political campaign against the taxi industry. Ostensibly, this is a fight between large taxi medallion investors and a multi-billion dollar tech startup, between cab companies and everyday Uber drivers, between entrenched power and technological change.
But it’s hard to ignore the context of the other political battle — the one between Democrats and Republicans — within which Uber is emerging as a potent, if contested symbol.
In recent months, prominent Republicans have championed the company as a model for the kind of “entrepreneurial spirit” that so often gets smothered by government regulation. Marco Rubio is a fan of Uber’s story. So is Reince Priebus. Grover Norquist has gone so far as to suggest that Republicans can leverage Uber, and other popular disruptors like it, to get back into the good graces of young, urban voters.
The RNC is even offering a “petition in support of innovative companies like Uber” right now with this ominous warning:
Across the country, taxi unions and liberal government bureaucrats are setting up roadblocks, issuing strangling regulations and implementing unnecessary red tape to block Uber from doing business in their cities.
We must stand up for our free market principles, entrepreneurial spirit and economic freedom.
But now here comes David Plouffe, the man who twice helped elect Barack Obama to the White House. And with an Obama insider helming Uber’s policy strategy, it will be that much harder to argue that Uber is the best symbol for why Republicans are right about the role of government and Democrats are wrong.
As I’ve written before, the actual politics around Uber have always been ideologically messy. We’ve seen Democratic mayors push for Uber-friendly regulation, and Republican governors stand in its way. And the most likely outcome for the company in any city resembles neither total deregulation (as GOP voices seem to be suggesting), nor stifling bureaucracy (as they hint that Democrats want).
I’ve written about this before as well. It’s hard to shoehorn an R-versus-D narrative into this when there’s no leading Democrat standing athwart Uber shouting “Stop!”, but I guess you play the cards you have. For what it’s worth, here in Houston the vote to allow Uber and Lyft was 10-5 in favor, with three Ds and two Rs voting No, and one of the members that was absent for the final vote (Dave Martin) was an R that would have voted No as well. (I don’t know who the other absentee was or how s/he would have voted.) I think most people recognize that Uber and Lyft are going to happen whether anyone likes it or not, that it’s not the government’s job to protect the business plan of an existing (and highly regulated) industry, and that there’a a place and a need for sensible regulations when a disruptive new business comes on the scene. If you prefer it all to be a battle of good versus evil, then sure, go read Grover Norquist’s bedtime stories. In the real world, people who want to make things work, on both sides of the aisle, will be busy trying to get things done.