Public Affairs & Government Relations

Tech’s Next Disruption? The 2020 Presidential Campaign

The Iowa caucuses are just a stone’s throw away. What positions will candidates take on technology and telecommunications topics that are bound to shape future policy?

The campaign for president is reaching an inflection point.

For almost six months, a crowded field of Democratic contenders has been on the stump, trying to separate themselves from the pack and gain an edge in the upcoming primaries. In the Republican arena, President Trump continues to make his case for re-election while a handful of challengers struggle for recognition in the wake of his incumbency.

Now, as we approach the first official contest of the 2020 presidential primary season — the Iowa caucuses scheduled for February 3 — Democratic candidates are concentrating intensely on rallying their base and gaining momentum out of the gate. They’re fine-tuning their positions on major issues such as foreign policy, gun violence and healthcare to swing as many voters as they can.

Among other issues, topics related to technology and telecommunications are also garnering attention from candidates. Some of these issues stand out as predictable partisan rallying points, including the never-ending discussion about net neutrality and alleged social harms of big tech platforms. More nuanced topics, such as data privacy, may be less incendiary and therefore get shorter shrift on the stump.

To Take a Position or Not?

Whether controversial or nuanced, technology and telecommunications topics present a dilemma for candidates. Because the topics factor into so many of today’s major issues — like racial bias and job loss — voters and the media expect candidates to stake out positions.

Yet any position a candidate takes to appeal to the base in a particular state primary has the potential to follow him or her to the general election where the national electorate may have diverging opinions. Positions may also affect campaign fundraising and, if elected, views expressed on the campaign trail could be difficult or unpopular for a winning candidate to implement as policy.

Should candidates lock themselves into tech policy positions so early? Or should they avoid this at all costs?

For example, how might a candidate’s position on protecting intellectual property factor into his take on competing with China as a global power? How will a candidate respond to the threat of the digital service trade war? These issues warrant more than a cut-and-dried answer and will prompt candidates to offer up a bit of foresight (and cunning).

Here are eight mounting issues infused with technology and telecommunications that might come out of the woodwork and force a candidate’s position in the 2020 presidential campaign.

Interacting With China as a Global Power

After years of frustration about ineffective responses to unfair trade, human rights, espionage and intellectual property theft with America’s largest trading partner, the Trump administration adopted controversial policies of economic and diplomatic confrontation. What does China policy look like for 2020 candidates? Do candidates propose a return to pre-Trump policies or a new direction? For instance, what solutions would today’s candidates propose for companies that are faced with the short-term win of selling their products to China, but the long-term threat fueling future competitors?

Building Up a Digital Infrastructure

With legislative authority for the nation’s current transportation infrastructure program expiring in 2020 (and unlikely to gain a long-term renewal in an election year), building and prioritizing projects will be an early agenda item for whomever is president in 2021. To what extent will candidates commit to making digital infrastructure a priority in the next transportation bill?

Improving Tech Labor Relations

Gig economy workers are seeking status as employees rather than contractors; organized labor initiatives are gaining confidence and attention; and employee activism and media leaks have embarrassed powerful executives. Will candidates, particularly Democrats, seek to win points with union workers by embracing California-style initiatives for union-resisting tech companies?

Promoting 21st Century Job Skills

Effective cybersecurity requires a specially trained workforce. Fifth generation (5G) cellular networks will bring connectivity and technology to new industries, necessitating more IT workers. As old economy jobs are filled by AI technology, new jobs coming online will require special training. Will candidates offer specific visions for education and vocational training classes and lifelong learning to meet the technology labor requirements of the not-too-distant future?

Governing Financial and Healthcare Initiatives

New technology has more potential to provide benefits for society in healthcare and financial services than any other sector of the economy. But in these lucrative and highly regulated markets where trust is critical, resistance to entry for big technology companies is stiffening. Will presidential candidates tell tech executives to get their own house in order before venturing out of their lane, or welcome them as free-market agents of competition empowering frustrated consumers with new choices?

Addressing Profits and Compensation

Stock options have yielded lucrative rewards for many who took a chance on a job in the tech sector. But downside experiences of such speculative compensation arrangements have been receiving more attention through initial public offerings (IPOs) that have been aborted or fallen short of expectations. If this trend continues, expect candidates to focus attention on leaders of problem-plagued companies that walk away as billionaires and private equity that some argue enables risky and nontransparent behavior. This issue will gain steam if the economy begins to lose significant momentum before next November.

Forecasting Digital Services Trade War

France’s new unilateral digital services tax has opened a potential new trade war front involving big U.S. companies and other nations seeking shares of their profits from activities abroad. For tech, this issue is critical as dramatic changes to tax structures are a threat to business models that delay taxable profits to invest in growth. In response to France, some prominent bipartisan voices have urged the Trump administration to consider authorities that would allow the imposition of a “double rate of U.S. tax” on citizens and corporations of foreign countries engaged in discriminatory taxation of Americans. While international tax policy isn’t a usual subject of presidential campaigns, an escalating China-like trade dispute with a traditional ally could make campaign discussions a bit more global and cut across traditional partisan lines.

Discussing Whether the “Unrealistic” Could Become Reality

We’ve already heard about the “billionaire’s tax” and calls to break up monopolies on the campaign trail. While this rhetoric may stir passions, it’s difficult to see a realistic path for Congress to achieve requisite agreement to enact such ideas into law. But it’s worth keeping in mind that ideas dismissed as unrealistic might be possible in the event that one party broadly sweeps the election and finds itself obligated to make good on its own campaign rhetoric.

For the technology and telecommunications industry, rhetoric and controversy on the 2020 campaign trail shouldn’t be ignored. Many Presidential candidates have already dropped out and those carrying on with support at the start of state primary voting have proven themselves shrewd operators even as populist rhetoric sometimes overshadows their sophisticated insights. The words that come out of their mouths may very well be harbingers of the future with larger implications.

The author is a former Communications Director of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and a 17-year veteran of Capitol Hill.

The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting LLP, its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals, members or employees.

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