At the Conservative Political Action Conference today, long-shot Republican presidential candidate John Kasich argued that we should "Uberize the federal government."
Kasich didn't go into much detail about what this means, but it's a line that he's been using for weeks on the campaign trail. And Kasich is not the only one who has pointed to Uber as a symbol for everything that's right with capitalism. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and former presidential candidates like Jeb Bush and Rand Paul have all touted Uber on the campaign trail.
There's something a little bit backward about this, as Uber is most popular in big cities with less than universal car ownership and lots of Democratic voters. But that's part of the reason talking about Uber is good politics for Republicans. It could help the party appeal to young, urban professionals who lean toward Democrats on cultural grounds but might find things to like in the GOP's economic message. It helps to drive a wedge between Uber-using urban professionals and more traditional — or more deeply ideological — liberals who see Uber's "gig economy" model as a threat to worker rights.
Of course, Uber itself cares less about presidential politics than about local regulation, where things tend to be less partisan in practice. Some Republican officeholders have been hostile to Uber, while many Democratic ones have been supportive. When the rubber meets the road, ordinary interest-group politics wind up mattering more than ideological considerations. But that doesn't stop Uber from being a potent tool in national politics, serving as a symbol for liberal fears and conservative hopes.
Why Republican candidates love Uber
Innovative businesses being held back by outdated regulations is a favorite conservative theme. And Uber makes an ideal poster child for this message. Uber was enabled by the invention of smartphones, and it solved a concrete problem — slow and unreliable taxi service — that many people encountered in their regular lives.
Taxi companies and their allies in city government are cast as the villains in the Uber morality play, trying to impose burdensome and arbitrary requirements on a company that had invented a better way of doing things.
Marco Rubio has been touting Uber for two years. He tweeted in support of Uber during last year's confrontation with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and in October he offered what Business Insider described as a "full-throated defense" of the ride-hailing company.
Ted Cruz compared himself to Uber at last year's CPAC, arguing that he and his conservative followers were going to disrupt politics in much the same way that Uber has disrupted the taxi business.
Kasich has done more than talk about Uber. Last December he signed legislation, favored by Uber, that formally recognized ride-hailing services. Uber favored the legislation because it preempts regulation by meddlesome local governments in cities like Cleveland.
It's natural for conservatives to side with a business fighting regulators, but the inclination to highlight this particular business has a lot to do with political demographics. Republican voters tend to be older and more rural than Democrats. Uber has a young and disproportionately urban customer base. If Republicans can turn Uber into a salient example of government regulation, it could broaden the GOP's demographic appeal without compromising on conservative principles.
Uber divides liberals
Best of all for Republicans, Uber makes a great wedge issue. Some liberals dislike Uber on ideological grounds, but others — especially in the media, politics, and technology centers of New York, Washington, and San Francisco — are regular Uber customers.
On one side of this debate are old-school liberals with strong ties to the labor movement and urban political machines. For them, Uber is a conventional story about worker and consumer rights. Labor unions believe Uber is flouting the law by classifying workers as independent contractors rather than employees. And they would love to unionize Uber's fast-growing workforce.
More broadly, conventional liberals are suspicious of claims that deregulation and innovation will benefit workers and consumers in the long run. They view Uber's "gig economy" as part of a broader trend toward declining worker power. They blame decades of deregulation — under both Republicans and centrist Democrats like Bill Clinton — for this trend, and believe stricter regulation of Uber could be part of a larger trend toward stricter regulation of labor markets more generally.
In a high profile campaign against Uber last year, Bill de Blasio primarily focused on congestion concerns, but he also mentioned workers' rights as a major concern.
On the other side of the debate are liberals — many of them Uber customers — who see Uber as an innovative company fighting entrenched special interests. While they might be sympathetic to theoretical arguments for government regulation, they remember what the taxi market was like before Uber came along.
Recognizing that in practice it needs friends in big liberal cities, Uber has worked hard to cultivate this base of support. Uber hired Obama strategist David Plouffe in 2014 to help the company craft its political strategy, and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has hailed Obamacare for helping Uber drivers get health insurance.
Hillary Clinton wants to attract supporters from both of these camps, so she has carefully hedged her bets. Last year, she credited "on-demand" companies like Uber with "creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation" while also acknowledging that the company is "raising hard questions."
The divide isn't as stark at the local level
While Republicans campaigning for national office have made a point of praising Uber, things have been more complicated at the state and local level. In Philadelphia, a Republican majority on the Philadelphia Parking Authority (which is appointed by state, not city, officials) has fought Uber's expansion. Former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed pro-Uber legislation in 2014 (her Republican successor has been more favorable to Uber). Last year, the Orlando Airport Authority, chaired by a Republican appointee, had a big feud with Uber, as did the city government in conservative San Antonio, Texas.
One reason for this divide is that presidential candidates don't actually have much skin in the game. Car services are mostly regulated at the state and local level, so the next president won't have much power to help or hurt Uber. So it's easy for Republicans seeking the presidency to employ pro-Uber rhetoric without committing to any specific policy positions.
Meanwhile, state and local officeholders have to worry more about the practical aspects of regulating Uber. Republicans have to worry about political pressures from taxi companies and others who are threatened by Uber's rise. And they have to worry that an excessively laissez-faire approach could fail to properly protect consumers and workers.
The opposite point applies for Democrats. Liberal politicians who are sympathetic to anti-Uber arguments in theory have to contend with the fact that thousands of constituents are regular Uber users, which helps explain why Democrat-controlled states like California and Colorado have passed Uber-friendly legislation.
And that means that national Republican enthusiasm for Uber isn't necessarily a good thing for the company. The Republican Party would love to make Uber into a partisan wedge issue. But if they succeed, it won't be good for Uber, because the policy decisions Uber cares about most are made by mayors and city councils in big cities. And those are going to be in Democratic hands for the foreseeable future.