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).
On Tuesday night, after the announcement of Plouffe's hiring, Uber emailed out a series of testimonials from five big names in politics and tech heralding the marriage. Every one has links to the Democratic party: Rahm Emanuel (Democratic mayor of Chicago), Deval Patrick (Democratic governor of Massachusetts), John Hickenlooper (Democratic governor of Colorado), David Axelrod (another senior Obama adviser), and Eric Schmidt (Google chairman and a big Obama donor in 2008).
Hickenlooper's quote even associates Plouffe and Uber with the loaded p-word:
In Colorado, we embrace innovation and disruptive technology. We push to be in the vanguard. Colorado has led the way on innovative transportation options like Uber. Having worked closely with David, I know he brings the same progressive approach.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said Tuesday that he belatedly realized his company needed to play politics to win a fight against taxis that he claims Uber never saw coming. Maybe Democrats are now similarly realizing, a bit late to the game, that they need to claim some of the Uber mantle, too.
Plouffe's new job is not to weigh in on this political fight. But his presence at the center of it is conspicuous. When I asked the RNC this morning what it thought of Plouffe's hiring, spokesman Raffi Williams doubled down on the party's interpretation of who loves Uber most:
“It’s ironic that Plouffe got the regulation king elected and now is trying to push for deregulation," Williams said in a statement. "I guess Uber thinks that Plouffe might be able to talk some sense into the Democrats who are afraid of innovation and try to stamp out any innovative business with overregulation.”