Politics & Policy

Fiorina Has Hillary Defenders Worried

Fiorina at CPAC. (Nicholas Kamm/Getty)

A long parade of presidential contenders presented themselves before a convention of New Hampshire Republicans this weekend. But only one was a former top business executive, and only one was a woman, and they were the same candidate. Carly Fiorina is no doubt getting attention because of her unique background, but more and more people are staying to listen because she has something fresh to say.

“For the first time in U.S. history, we are destroying more businesses than we are creating,” Fiorina told her audience in Nashua. “The weight of the government is literally crushing the potential of the people of this nation.” Electing standard-issue politicians will no longer do, she said. “Managers are people who do the best they can within the existing system. Leaders are people who do not accept what is broken just because it has been that way for a long time.”

Fiorina also seems to relish the role of being the most pointed critic of Hillary Clinton. “She tweets about women’s rights in this country and takes money from governments that deny women the most basic human rights,” she jabbed back in February when a scandal involving the Clinton Foundation surfaced. She contrasts her background as a “problem solver” with Clinton’s record as a professional politician. Her critique of Clinton’s record is withering: “I come from a world where speeches are not accomplishments. Activity isn’t accomplishment. Title isn’t accomplishment. I come from a world where you have to actually do something; you have to produce results.”

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David Carney, a veteran New Hampshire political strategist who is neutral in the 2016 race but whose wife works for Fiorina, told the Associated Press: “You see some candidates when they attack a woman come across very badly, but it’s not very awkward for Carly. She seems to pull it off very well.”

Indeed, well enough that liberals have been piling on Fiorina in an energetic effort to belittle her. Adrienne Elrod, a spokeswoman for a group set up to defend Hillary Clinton, recently called Fiorina “short on substance, with sophomoric one-liners.” The New Republic noted that Sarah Palin used to be called the GOP’s “Queen Bee” and then sneered that “it seems the GOP has finally found a new Queen: Carly Fiorina.”

#related#Liberals also point out that while she was the first woman to ever helm a Fortune 20 company, her six-year tenure as the head of Hewlett Packard ended in her firing. “They will say I was let go by my board in 2005 and outsourced some jobs overseas,” she tells me. “But I took the company through the worst technology recession in a generation and created jobs on a net basis. As for the outsourcing, California’s tax and regulatory climate made it almost impossible not to do that — which is why we have to change it.” Fiorina claims that subsequent revelations — that her successor and the board members who fired her were embroiled in an internal spying scandal — help vindicate her tenure.

In fact, it was her experience in California that convinced her of big government’s power to destroy people. Fiorina told Glenn Beck that California’s current drought is a human-caused environmental disaster. “Despite the fact that California has suffered from droughts for millennia, liberal environmentalists have prevented the building of a single new reservoir or a single new water conveyance system over decades during a period in which California’s population has doubled.”

She told me that during her 2010 campaign for the U.S. Senate, she met jobless farm workers who were completely broken psychologically after endangered-species rules cut the flow of water to the Central Valley. “It’s wrenching to talk to people who can’t take care of their own families and face lives of complete dependency,” she said.

Fiorina believes she can connect with ordinary voters because her own experience shows how people can rise when they have economic opportunity.

She believes she can connect with ordinary voters because her own experience shows how people can rise when they have economic opportunity. She left Stanford University with a degree in medieval history and philosophy and was “completely unemployable.” So she worked as a secretary at a real-estate firm until someone saw her potential and she joined a management-training program at AT&T in 1980. She rose to oversee marketing and sales for the largest division of Lucent Technologies before taking over HP in 1999.

It’s fashionable now for many Republican candidates to bash “crony capitalism,” the interlocking of government and corporate power in entities such as Solyndra or the Export-Import Bank. But Fiorina takes her critique further, saying the country needs a new tax code. “It’s not just enough to lower tax rates,” she told me. “You have to simplify the 26,000-page tax code and take away the power to grant special favors.”

Hearkening back to her corporate career, she believes technology can play a “transformative” role because it allows citizens to play a greater watchdog role and keep a check on spending, taxes, and government abuses. “We need to do what Obama talked about in 2008 but backtracked on: more transparency and accountability, putting budgets and legislation online,” she told me.

Some of her ideas may sound fanciful but are worth discussing. “People think I’m joking, but maybe we ought to put every one of those regulations out on the Internet . . . and ask the American people to vote on them,” she told the Heritage Foundation last week. “Five stars, we keep you, one star, you’re gone. Wouldn’t that put interesting pressure on the political process?” If something dramatic isn’t done, the notion of government “of, by, and for the people” will be lost. “What happens when a system is so complicated and so powerful that only the powerful, the wealthy, the well connected can deal with all that?” she asked.

As she gains traction in some early-primary states, Fiorina will no doubt be criticized for a “Carly-come-lately” interest in conservative issues, having barely even voted for most of her adult life. But she insists on her conservative bona fides. Her father was Joseph Sneed, a conservative law professor who served on the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. His daughter says she inherited both his ability to work with those he disagreed with and his “commonsense” views on issues. Her experience running HP convinced her she had to become active in politics.

All well and good, but Fiorina is no doubt a long shot for the GOP nomination. That inevitably leads to questions about whether her real goal is a vice-presidential nomination on a GOP ticket that will probably face Hillary Clinton. Fiorina is no “gotcha feminist,” but she deftly handles such questions. Chris Wallace of Fox News asked her last month: Would you even consider being the running mate?” Her response was a classic: “Well, when you start asking all the other candidates that question, then maybe we’ll have that conversation.”

What is clear is that Fiorina has attracted enough attention and backing to get in the race in a serious way, and she will have more chances to impress grass-roots activists and voters. Her candor and bluntness, along with her business experience, offer a refreshing contrast with Hillary Clinton. Republicans would be wise to showcase her talents, regardless of how far she herself takes them in the 2016 campaign.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review Online.

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