Periodically, conservatives latch on to some emerging cultural development and decide that this the thing that will allow them to win over young voters, providing some crack in the door through which they can shove a foot and bring their message of free markets and small government to an audience they're convinced is just waiting to hear it. Remember "South Park conservatives"? There was supposed to be a whole generation of irreverent right-wingers, turned off by the excesses of political correctness and ready to rush to the arms of the GOP. It didn't work out that way.
And lately, Republicans have been over the moon for Uber. In case you aren't aware, GOP politicians have been lining up to shower the company with love. Marco Rubio is an Uber fan. Newt Gingrich is an Uber crusader. The RNC has a petition you can sign in support of Uber in its conflicts with local taxi regulations that keep the company out. Here's a recent Politico piece:
Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster who runs the firm Echelon Insights, said Uber’s city-by-city trench warfare “created this poster child example of what happens when the status quo uses government regulation to keep competition out of the market.” She added: “It doesn’t feel ideological, but it creates this example for what Republicans have been saying all along.”
In a statement, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus praised the role of innovators and companies shaking up old markets — and said government shouldn’t stand in the way of the innovation that consumers clearly want.
When Reince Priebus is touting your company, you know you've arrived. And more than a few Republicans probably felt betrayed when the company announced that it had hired Obama adviser David Plouffe to run its political efforts, managing its fight against taxi commissions and local laws that constrain it from spreading.
I have no problem with the Republicans embracing Uber. Taxi regulations usually have a logic to them, but they can also be ridiculous. In the places where Uber is being fought, it's a pure battle of interests, with the existing businesses fighting to keep their privileged position. It's really not an ideological contest at all.
Which is one of the reasons conservatives are mistaken if they think that they'll wind up getting some kind of partisan advantage out of this issue. I think the problem is that they believe their own caricature of liberals, which is that liberals love regulation for its own sake. But that isn't true. Liberals think regulations are often necessary to accomplish particular goals. We don't want regulations on food safety just because regulation is good, we want regulations on food safety because people being poisoned by their food is bad, and experience has shown that food producers can't police themselves. If there's an area where the goal — like people being able to get around town easily while also being protected from fraud or other kinds of exploitation—can be accomplished with a less regulated system, then that's perfectly fine with us. I haven't seen a single liberal who opposes services like Uber and Lyft on some kind of broad ideological grounds.
If you want people to understand a particular controversy as an ideological contest where your party is on the right side (as Republicans would like when it comes to Uber), your opponents have to take the other side. Then it'll be discussed in the media as a partisan disagreement, and that's how people will come to understand it. But that's not happening here. The public (and those precious young people) isn't going to see the incumbent taxi operators as the "Democratic" or "liberal" side of the issue, because Democrats aren't joining the fight in any organized way on that side.
For what it's worth, I think this is a temporary issue anyway. If I had to predict, I'd say that services like Uber and Lyft are going to flourish, but taxi companies will adapt in some way that allows them to hold on to some portion of the market even if they fail in keeping those services out completely. Then in a couple of decades when self-driving cars become ubiquitous, the whole system is going to change.
But in the meantime, this fight is not going to become a symbol of the party divide, no matter how much Newt Gingrich talks about it. The fact remains that the party's core is still older rural and suburban religious conservatives. That's where they get their votes, and that's what the image of a Republican in the public's mind is. And most of those people couldn't care less about something like Uber. It's safe to say that quick access to app-based urban transportation options is not high on the priority list of the average Republican voter. As long as those voters' primary goals are things like cutting taxes, trying to keep gay people from getting married, and fighting the pernicious spread of secure health coverage, that's where the party's image is going to stay.
If Republicans want to fight for Uber and Lyft against taxi companies just because they think it's the right thing to do on the merits, that's great. But they probably shouldn't fool themselves into thinking it'll convince young people that the GOP is where all the hip, tech-savvy millennials are at.