There was an interesting dichotomy on display this week, as Hillary Clinton launched a new phase of her campaign (her third re-launch? her fourth?) with a focus on the economy. This was clearly a response to Bernie Sanders, the self-described socialist who has been drawing enormous crowds across the country as he began his campaign against Clinton. His showing was enough to push Clinton into a speech on the economy that she likely didn’t want to give, as she probably offered more details than she intended to this early in the campaign (which, for Clinton, means “any at all”).
Though it was billed as a policy speech, Clinton’s speech at the New School — a venue safely ensconced in her adopted hometown of New York City (or is it Chappaqua?) — really was entirely political. She was attempting to answer her populist critics — both the conservative variety (epitomized by Rand Paul and Scott Walker) and the liberal type (epitomized by Sanders) — without alienating her base. That is why she decided to go after some of the most popular tech startups in the country, rather than challenge any of the liberal special interest groups who will be bankrolling her campaign.
Clinton and the Democrats aren’t the only ones to face tension between the new economy and the old. Sadly, many Republicans all over the country (though not the presidential candidates, so far) have bought in to arguments against services like Airbnb, Uber and others. The difference is that Republicans are familiar with this tension, as they have always faced disagreements between big business and entrepreneurs. For Democrats, the conflict is between labor unions and rebellious startups (who often have strong support from Wall Street).
By targeting the “sharing economy,” as she put it, in her speech, Clinton is embracing a statist economy that favors big business and big labor at the expense of entrepreneurs. Rather than encouraging the agents of change in the economy, she embraced the status quo. By doing so, she drove a wedge between the reformers of Silicon Valley and the traditional power groups of the Democratic Party: the unions. While it’s no surprise that a woman who has spent much of her adult life in a bubble enforced by the Secret Service doesn’t understand the appeal of these sites, voters who don’t have their own private drivers aren’t quite so sheltered.
Clinton has also implicitly acknowledged that the unions and their traditional economic structure are unable to compete with the nimble startups that are creating this new economy. After all, if union businesses — whether big hotels that compete with Airbnb or taxi drivers who compete with Uber — were more competitive, they wouldn’t have a problem. Their problem is that without a government-mandated model that gives them an unfair advantage, they can’t compete — and that’s what the free market is showing right now.
If any individual prefers to frequent a union business, like a hotel or a taxicab over Uber or Airbnb, they are more than free to do so. The problem here for Clinton isn’t that these websites are doing anything wrong, but that they are undercutting allies on the left who will fund her campaign.
This presents an opportunity for Republicans, of course. If they can find a candidate who will embrace the new tech economy, they might be able to take some serious support from Clinton. In order to win in 2016, Republicans will need to find a candidate who can get these businessmen aboard, and won’t turn them off with harsh rhetoric. Clinton has left Republicans with an opening: The question is, who (if anyone) can take advantage?