Welcome to the Uber election

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During the 2012 presidential campaign, a Silicon Valley startup hovered low over the rhetoric of the race. That company, a solar panel maker named Solyndra, had earned notoriety by receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in federal loan guarantees and subsidies before going bankrupt. Its downfall became a convenient partisan allegory, and Republican candidates used it to paint President Obama as a pie-in-the-sky optimist who couldn't be trusted to spend taxpayer money wisely. (Nevermind that Solyndra kicked off a wave of largely successful photovoltaic projects — its struggles were enough for Mitt Romney to seize on.)

Uber, a tech startup that was a provincial runt during the 2012 campaign, is poised to play a central role in 2016. Unlike Solyndra, Uber's narrative follows a straight trajectory up and to the right. The ride-hailing behemoth has raised billions of dollars, singlehandedly toasted the traditional taxi industry, and spurred counter-protests across the globe. It has also raised policy questions about worker classification, taxi regulation, and the role of public transportation. As with Solyndra, Uber makes for convenient ideological shorthand — tell me where you stand on the Paris protests, and I can probably tell you where you fall on the Hayek-Keynes spectrum — and its ubiquity in the U.S. makes it a good political shibboleth.


But Uber is a trickier political cudgel than Solyndra was. It's a company that was founded by a Rand-loving libertarian, but hired an Obama confidant as its chief policy strong-arm — a company that simultaneously supports the Affordable Care Act and calls for the dismantling of transportation regulation. The company's political enemies — Democratic mayors, Republican governors, rich coastal hamlets — are as varied as its friends. In politics, Uber is a $50 billion Rorschach test. Project onto it as you will.

This ideological confusion has resulted in a swirl of activity from this year's candidates, all jockeying to place themselves on the correct side of Uber's favor.


We know which side Jeb Bush is on. Today, Bush made a show of "hailing" (lol) an Uber during a San Francisco event where he will, among other activities, discuss "the importance of innovation and fostering disruptive technology." For Bush, as for Marco Rubio and other GOP candidates, there's little downside to throwing in with Uber — a company beloved by young coastal elites, backed by Silicon Valley bundler-types, and whose narrative arc is one of private-sector ingenuity trumping public-sector dysfunction.

Hillary Clinton and her Democratic also-rans, then, have a choice to make: jump on the Uber train alongside Bush and Rubio, or wave the flag of opposition?

Clinton seems to be dipping her toes into the Uber-skeptic waters. Today, in a speech at The New School, Clinton said:

Meanwhile, many Americans are making extra money renting out a spare room, designing websites, selling products they design themselves at home, or even driving their own car. This “on demand” or so-called “gig economy” is creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation but it’s also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.


Notice that Clinton has eschewed the first sign of Uber affiliation by avoiding the company's preferred "sharing economy" nomenclature. Still, Clinton's camp seems to be treading carefully.


Dan Primack writes that Uber's entry into the race as a "proxy for economic policy" is a dangerous development for the company, since its users' behavior could be swayed along partisan lines. ("How many times would Hillary have to bash Uber before her supporters in Uber hotbeds like New York and San Francisco begin to download other ride-hailing apps?" he asks.)

But the risk in 2016 isn't Uber's. After all, the users have spoken. If protests, arrests, safety concerns, and a cavalcade of bad press coverage haven't dented Uber's armor in the past, some light jabs from a presidential candidate won't hurt it, either.


Clinton, on the other hand, has a lot to lose. Because wherever Uber has failed, it has decidedly not failed to paint its principled opponents — or anyone who would question its march to ubiquity, really — as backward, nostalgic neo-Luddites. Sure, Clinton might pick up some populist support by going after Uber, but you can almost hear the attack ads now: "Is Hillary Clinton beholden to taxi industry thugs? Does she … support drunk driving?"

To oppose Uber in 2016 is to enter a rhetorical playing field that has been booby-trapped. There are legitimate reasons to be wary of Uber's rise, but few if any national figures have been able to oppose the company without being made to sound like regressive fogies. And until skeptics of the gig economy find new and better ways to articulate their concerns, it might be better for Clinton to make a play for less flammable ground.