It didn’t take long for the outlines of a Carly Fiorina backlash to emerge.
Talk-radio host Mark Levin is much less impressed than other conservatives by the former HP CEO’s breakout performance in last week’s GOP presidential debate. He charges that Fiorina embraced moderate, “establishment” positions in her only previous run for office, a 2010 bid for the Senate in California.
Levin’s skepticism is echoed by Townhall’s John Hawkins, who called Fiorina “the Establishment candidate” in that cycle, and by conservative policy analyst Dean Clancy, who showcased a post Red State’s Erick Erickson wrote during the Senate race declaring, “the mask is off, and there’s a squishy moderate underneath.”
On several of conservatives’ biggest issues — gay marriage, abortion, and gun rights — Fiorina took bold, outspoken stances that put her to the right of previous leading California Republicans.
But on several of conservatives’ biggest issues — gay marriage, abortion, and gun rights — Fiorina took bold, outspoken stances that put her to the right of previous leading California Republicans such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pete Wilson.
“I’m proudly pro-life,” Fiorina told the California Republican Assembly state convention. “Marriage is between a man and a woman. My husband owns lots of guns. I will defend the rights of the unborn and I will never turn my back on the values we hold so dear.”
The Charlie Crists, Arlen Specters, and Jon Huntsmans of the world don’t speak like that. Nor would they ever earn an enthusiastic endorsement from Sarah Palin, as Fiorina did in 2010. It’s worth noting that some tea-party groups erupted in fury when Palin endorsed Fiorina. But it’s also true that Palin wasn’t the only high-profile conservative to endorse the former HP CEO in the primary. Senators Tom Coburn and James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Jon Kyl of Arizona declared, “We are proud to endorse her as a fellow conservative who has real-world business experience and the guts and moxie to take on Barbara Boxer and win.”
After the Palin endorsement, Fiorina overtook former Congressman Tom Campbell, largely seen as the most moderate of the three Republican primary candidates, and won the nomination.
The year 2010 was arguably the peak of the Tea Party’s influence, and Fiorina relentlessly courted the movement. Her campaign sent fundraising e-mails hitting Obama for mocking the movement, and touting her attendance at anti–Tax Day rallies. And at an event in El Dorado Hills, she declared, “Whether they call themselves tea partiers, conservatives, libertarians, moderates, even independents or Democrats — I think we are members of a single party now. I think we are all a part of the ‘had enough’ party.”
Fiorina’s record is thin when compared to some of her rivals’, and it warrants a thorough review by conservative GOP primary voters who feel burned by past choices.
While Fiorina indisputably campaigned as a conservative in the Senate race, DeVore and others argued there wasn’t much in her pre-2010 history to prove that she was telling the truth.
Fiorina was part of the economic team on John McCain’s presidential campaign, and when McCain decided to support the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), she took to the airwaves to defend the vote. “The $700 billion bailout was important. It was necessary,” she said. It’s unclear whether Fiorina actually supported TARP at the time or she was merely playing the good soldier for McCain’s campaign. But by 2010, she was citing the bailouts as a policy she would have opposed: “I would have voted against the bailouts — those happened in a Republican administration.”
After Fiorina hit Campbell for supporting taxes on sales made over the Internet, DeVore’s campaign found a quote from 2000 in which the then–HP CEO urged lawmakers to “bring our taxation system into the modern age so that we can tax in a fair way both online and offline transactions.”
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Fiorina’s rhetoric on the Senate campaign trail offered the occasional glaring deviation from conservative orthodoxy. She said she “probably” would have voted to confirm Obama’s Supreme Court appointee, Sonia Sotomayor. And shortly after her campaign launch, Mark Krikorian examined a painfully generic statement Fiorina had made about illegal immigration, and concluded that her refusal to openly oppose a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants amounted to support for such a path.
Finally, some conservative bloggers contended that Fiorina’s doctoral dissertation hewed suspiciously close to “mainstream Democratic education rhetoric.” They cited one concluding passage in particular:
I have ended by believing that we will never meet our own expectations of public education unless the federal government is willing to play a consistent, long-term role; unless education truly becomes a matter of national policy, not just a matter of national rhetoric.
Of course, that dissertation was written in 1989, when Harvard Law School student Barack Obama was just meeting Michelle Robinson and Marco Rubio was graduating from high school.Twenty six years later, Fiorina speaks like a conservative on education. “When a Washington bureaucracy gets involved in a program, it becomes heavy-handed and standardized. It’s how Washington bureaucracy works,” she said on Fox News Sunday earlier this year. “Common Core, unfortunately, limits parents’ choices. It will, over time, limit our children’s options.”
Because of her lack of governing experience, Fiorina’s record is thin when compared with those of some of her rivals, and it warrants a thorough review by conservative GOP primary voters who feel burned by past choices. But it’s far too simple to say that she “staked out the moderate Republican position” in her only other run for office. She pitched herself as a conservative back then, and even if she hadn’t, she’s pitching herself as a conservative now. At worst, it could be said that she’s “evolved” on a number of issues since becoming a politician. And that shouldn’t be disqualifying with the Republican electorate, if Donald Trump’s rise is any guide,
— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.