Politics & Policy

Carly the Communicator

(Scott Olson/Getty)
‘I get why she’s hot out there.’

Manchester, N.H. — According to the longstanding cliché, presidential candidates campaign in “the snows of New Hampshire.” But they also campaign the summer before, and even the spring before. Carly Fiorina is logging some serious New Hampshire time here in early July.

She has never held office before, but has run before: She won the Republican Senate nomination in California in 2010. She had been CEO of Hewlett-Packard, the technology giant. And a surrogate for John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign. In 2010, she lost her general election to the longtime senator Barbara Boxer. Evidently, Fiorina was just too conservative for today’s California. She is pro-life, for example. Before Election Day, one Democratic political pro said, “The issue of abortion alone is sufficient to sink Fiorina.” Being against abortion in California, he said, is like being against oil in Texas.

Now 60, Fiorina is running for a bigger office: president. This run seems quixotic to some, understandably, but Fiorina is making waves on the trail. She is drawing crowds and creating chatter. She is developing a particular reputation as an articulator of conservative ideas. Recently, she appeared on The View, mixing it up with Whoopi Goldberg and other non-Republicans. As video clips were passed around the Internet, many conservatives said, “That’s the way it should be done.”

On a Wednesday in New Hampshire, there are three events on her calendar: an early-morning coffee with small-business owners in Concord; a noontime meeting with the Chamber of Commerce in Salem; and an evening gathering in Hampstead. This last event is a townhall-style affair held at the Old Meeting House, built in 1745. The place could serve as the set of a Disney movie about New England democracy.

The candidate is dressed in a smart short jacket and a skirt, two different shades of beige (as far as I can tell). Seeing a crowd, or even a few people milling around, she wades right in, eager and assured. She looks at people intently and gives them a firm handshake. When they say their name, she says it back to them: “Good to meet you, Ed”; “Thanks for coming, Marjorie.” Women seem to identify with her. Men seem to dig her.

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And one and all call her “Carly” (which is what her signs and bumper stickers say: “Carly for America”). It used to be, when you said “Carly” in America, you meant Carly Simon, the singer-songwriter. Fiorina may be catching up or even beyond her.

In presenting herself as an anti-politician, Fiorina says that politicians “just talk and talk and talk,” without doing anything. Whatever the case, Fiorina is a very good talker herself: natural and unstumbling. Her usual tone is warm, though she can summon an edge. At the early-morning coffee, she speaks in a quiet and determined voice, mic-less. I think of a phrase once applied to George Stephanopoulos, when he was a (Bill) Clinton aide: a “power whisper.” Later in the day, she gets a little sassy, talking about a contentious interview she had with Katie Couric: “According to some people, I ate her lunch.”

#related#As a rule, she talks fast and uncondescendingly. She does not put on a Mr. Rogers voice, as many politicians do. (I speak of the late Fred Rogers, the genial host of the children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.) She knows how to manage applause. She does not permit it to disrupt her flow. Her grammar is exceptionally sound, though she has picked up the modern habit of using “impact” as a verb — we all will, someday. Also, like a good conservative, she uses “Democrat” as an adjective: “the Democrat nominee.” She does not shy from using words that aren’t everyday: “nascent,” for example, or “oligopoly.” The health-insurance industry has been “a cozy little oligopoly.”

Fiorina has a love of language, as she has confirmed to me in two interviews now. Besides which, it shows. She tells a crowd that, because of public anger, President Obama signed a Veterans Affairs bill “without a peep.” She likes the word “crush,” and “crushed,” and “crushing.” People’s opportunities are being crushed. The federal government is crushing small business. Wrongheaded policies are combining to crush the American Dream. This word “crush” leaves an almost physical effect.

Back in February, Fiorina told me that, while serving as a McCain surrogate, “I learned that I love to campaign. I love the challenge of boiling down very complicated things into language that will land in people’s lives.” I recall this when, here on the stump, she says the following about tax reform: “Lower every rate, close every loophole.” To reinforce it, she says it again: “Lower every rate, close every loophole.”

Fiorina has a love of language, she tells me, and it shows.

Regularly, she says things that don’t normally come out of politicians’ mouths. For instance, she describes wind power as the pet of “ideologues in the environmental movement.” Those turbines are “slicing up hundreds of thousands of birds every year.” True, but who says it, among politicians? At the end of one talk, she invites people to support her campaign, “if you’re so inclined.” If you’re so inclined? That is a graceful touch, to my ears.

On this Wednesday in New Hampshire, I hear her talk for about four hours, and tomorrow I’ll hear her for another two. In all this time, she makes just one factual mistake, as far as I’m aware: She says that President Reagan succeeded in repealing the 55-mile-per-hour national speed limit. That was the new Republican Congress in 1995. Also, she says “Balkans” once when she means “Baltics,” as many of us have done — although it’s possible I’ve misheard her.

She tends to begin her talks with her life story, introducing herself. She says lines she has said many, many times before, as politicians do: Repetition is a feature and imperative of this business. Yet Fiorina has the knack of saying the lines naturally, sometimes as though they were just occurring to her.

When she was a little girl, her mother told her, “What you are is God’s gift to you. What you make of yourself is your gift to God.” Carly went to Stanford, majoring in medieval history and philosophy. “I was well educated but not very employable. All dressed up and nowhere to go.” She went to law school (UCLA), hated it, and dropped out after just a semester. Then she went to work at a little nine-person real-estate firm, as a secretary. After six months, the guys running the shop said to her, “We’ve been watching you, and know you’re capable of more. Would you like to learn what we do?” Fiorina stresses that she has been given helping hands throughout her life, and that all people need helping hands.

RELATED: Carly Fiorina Is a Great Communicator

Eventually, she obtained graduate degrees — at Maryland and MIT — and became CEO of Hewlett-Packard, which was the largest technology company in the world. She presents herself as an only-in-America story, from secretary to CEO. “Human potential is the only limitless resource we have,” she says. And she quotes a man she met on the campaign trail, who told her, “We don’t have the sense of limitless potential anymore.” This, Fiorina pledges to antidote.

Her tenure at HP was a controversial one, as she discusses. “I was fired in a boardroom brawl that played out over two weeks.” I have not heard a candidate discuss the experience of being fired since 1988, when Al Haig said, “The president fired me” (as secretary of state). I was struck by Haig’s lack of euphemism. Fiorina’s line is that, when you lead, you have to challenge the status quo, and when you challenge the status quo, you make enemies — which is what happened to her. Anyone can just go along to get along; a leader is something else.

She mentions trials in her life, early and fairly often. “We lost a daughter to the demons of addiction.” Lori Ann Fiorina struggled with alcohol and drugs and died in her mid thirties. Carly herself battled breast cancer six years ago. (She tells me, in a sitdown, that her health is good.)

(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty)

In this peculiar presidential cycle, there are three candidates who have never held office before: Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and Fiorina. I think of an observation by my colleague Rick Brookhiser, the historian: “The presidency is not an entry-level political job, unless you’ve won a world war.” The allusion is to Eisenhower, of course, but we think of Grant, too, who had won a civil war.

Fiorina addresses this question head-on, as well she should. At one stop, she says, “I am not a neophyte,” when it comes to politics. She ran for the Senate and has campaigned for a number of others. Also, she has advised a number of people in government. But this is what she emphasizes, to audiences at large: We’re supposed to have a citizen government, right? Of, by, and for the people. If she were president, she would occasionally ask people to whip out their smartphones, to participate in insta-polls. Bearing a phone aloft, she says, “This is the greatest tool for democratization we know.”

RELATED: It’s a Marathon: Fiorina Plans to Exceed Expectations and Hang On 

She habitually cites a poll that said 82 percent of people believe there is a professional political class, “more interested in its position, power, and perks than in doing the work.” (Note those “p”s: position, power, and perks, inherent in a professional political class.) There are fine men and women in politics, she says, and she does not mean to “disparage” them all. But, as a class, politicians have an interest in preserving the status quo. Members of both parties are guilty, she says.

I’m reminded of another candidate, Senator Ted Cruz, who says that “career politicians in both parties” have failed America, and that, together, they form “the Washington cartel.”

Fiorina presents herself as less a politician than a leader and problem-solver.

Fiorina presents herself as less a politician than a leader and problem-solver. I smile at the memory of a candidate in 2012, a businessman from the South who introduced himself by saying, “I’m Herman Cain, and I solve problems for a livin’.” Fiorina says that, in business, she “ran to problems. They didn’t scare me. They interested me, and challenged me.” Defending her credentials as a potential president, she says that she understands the economy, technology, and bureaucracies. The federal government now, she says, is essentially “a big, bloated, inept bureaucracy.” She also knows leadership, the sine qua non. “I know how to make a tough call at a tough time and take responsibility for it.”

No matter who is in power, she says, the government gets bigger and bigger, though Obama has been especially guilty. Problems live on, decade after decade. How long have we been talking about securing the border? How long have we been talking about reforming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? How long have we been talking about fixing the VA, this “stain on our national honor”? Fiorina promises to act, not merely talk. “This is not rocket science,” she likes to say. These problems are readily solvable. All it takes is political will. She cites the Nike slogan, “Just do it.”

Not to condescend, but I think of Truman, and what he said about the newly elected Ike: He was used to barking at armies, and they moved — but he would find the federal government something else altogether.

Fiorina inveighs against “crony capitalism,” which is a far cry from real capitalism. She also inveighs against the tax code, which is 70,000 pages long. Who can cope with that behemoth? She could cope with it at HP, she says, because she had a 90-billion-dollar company and could hire fleets of accountants, lawyers, and lobbyists. But how about the average person or business?

Critics say that, as CEO, she outsourced jobs to China. She informs audiences of this charge, and rebuts it. She goes on to make a devilish point, and a good point: It would be more accurate to say that she “outsourced” jobs from California to Texas, which had much more sensible government than that golden state, ruled by the Left. I believe that one of her rivals for the Republican nomination, Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, would smile to hear her say this.

RELATED: The CEO and the CIA: How Carly Fiorina Managed and Advised the ‘Poobahs’ at Langley

For the federal government, Fiorina suggests zero-based budgeting — the method by which you start with zero for a departmental budget, instead of assuming last year’s budget and talking about increases. Unless I’m mistaken, I haven’t heard about zero-based budgeting in politics since Jimmy Carter, who took it very seriously. (We forget how the Left despised Carter for his conservatism, especially his fiscal conservatism. Ted Kennedy challenged him for the 1980 nomination, after all.)

In her very fluent spiel on health care, she says, “The one thing we haven’t tried is the free market.” On immigration, she is hawkish — i.e., robustly restrictionist — though sympathetic to smart immigration, or her conception of it. We let in the dubious relatives of those already here, in “chain migration,” and send home newly minted grads of Caltech.

She is an American Greatness candidate, whether the subject at hand is foreign or domestic.

Hawk she may be, on immigration and other issues, but she expresses a good deal of “compassionate conservatism,” as we said in the bad old days of George W. Bush. Fiorina abides by the adage “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” On the stump, she talks about “strugglers,” the down and out, who have “God-given potential” that has yet to be tapped, or freed. “We tangle up their lives in webs of dependence,” she says. Talking about welfare, she sounds like Charles Murray, who wrote the landmark Losing Ground 30 years ago. Fiorina says she is not interested in saving money — though that would be welcome — but in saving lives. Misguided welfare, she believes, smothers lives.

Eager to establish her bona fides in foreign policy, she says she has done business, or charity work, on every continent, and in nearly every country. “I know more world leaders than anyone else in the field,” she says, “with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton,” who was secretary of state, after all. “But I had substantive conversations with these people, not photo ops.” She tells people, “I sat this close to Vladimir Putin.” And “I could have told you he would not be impressed by some gimmicky red reset button.”

#related#Her first phone call from the Oval Office, she says, would be to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, an old friend. (Of what Republican is Bibi not an old friend?) She would assure him of her country’s support — because other countries are watching the American relationship with Israel, and taking cues from it. The next call she would place would be to the Iranian “supreme leader,” Khamenei — who would probably not take the call. But he would get the message. “I don’t care what John Kerry or Barack Obama agreed to. Unless you allow us unfettered inspections of your nuclear facilities, anytime, anywhere, we will make it as difficult as possible for you to move money around the world. We can do that, and we don’t need anyone’s permission.”

She is an American Greatness candidate, whether the subject at hand is foreign or domestic. She quotes Margaret Thatcher, whom she describes as a hero of hers. Thatcher told those around her, “We did not seek election and win in order to manage the decline of a great nation.” Fiorina has no interest in managing decline. “Every one of our problems has a solution,” she says. “Every one of our wounds is self-inflicted.”

Fiorina at CPAC 2015

Her stump speech comes with a dose of humor. Earlier this year, someone asked her whether a woman’s hormones could prevent her — any woman — from serving as president. From acting rationally. Hearing about this, the audience groans and laughs. Fiorina says, “Ladies, here’s a test.” (Anticipatory laughter.) “Can you think of a time when men’s judgment was clouded by hormones?” (Laughter.) “Including in the Oval Office?” (Considerable laughter.)

Which brings us to the Clintons, and, in particular, to Mrs. Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Fiorina says, or implies, that she would be the most effective candidate against Hillary: How could the Democrat play her first-woman-president card? Also, she mocks Hillary’s inability, or seeming inability, to use simple technology: In the wake of State Department scandals, she pleaded ignorance of the ABCs of e-mail. “Don’t you think a president should know something about technology?” asks the ex-CEO of HP.

‘I will not leave our punches pulled,” says Fiorina. “I’ll throw every punch we’ve got.’

Furthermore, she talks of hitting Hillary with everything in the Republican arsenal (which is obviously bulging). She says that the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, is a fine man who would have made a fine president. But, a gentleman to a fault, he pulled punches. “I will not leave our punches pulled,” says Fiorina. “I’ll throw every punch we’ve got.”

After a speech, she of course does Q&A, at which she is smooth. Passing over a person with his hand up, she’ll say, “I’ll get to you next.” Once finishing a question, she’s apt to say, “Does that make sense? Did I answer your question?”

One New Hampshirite asks her what kind of judges she would appoint. That’s an easy one for Fiorina. She smiles warmly and says, with great affection, “Judges like my dad.” Joseph Sneed was a law professor, a law dean (Duke), a deputy attorney general (under Nixon), and, for 14 years, a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Sitting in San Francisco, this court is notoriously left-wing, and Sneed was the lone conservative on it, says his daughter. He never wavered from conservative or constitutionalist principles. And he took pleasure in the Supreme Court’s overturn of Ninth Circuit decisions — especially when the justices cited his dissents.

Before she says goodbye to an audience, Fiorina makes a frank pitch. (Always ask ’em for their vote, said Tip O’Neill.) She pleads that, unlike “professional politicians,” she does not have years of donor lists or e-mail lists. “I gotta do this from a standing start.” She asks people to do as little as tell their friends, “Pay attention to her.”

She gets standing ovations, sometimes on introduction, reliably on closure. In between, people nod, and look at one another, impressed. Afterward, they say things like “Breath of fresh air,” and “I could see voting for her.”

Fiorina and a supporter in Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty)

Fiorina is “relatable,” to use a ghastly new word: People relate to her, and she relates to them. I have seen her in front of conservative, and therefore friendly, audiences. But Democrats aren’t immune to her charm either. At an event in Nashua, Fiorina is introduced by a veteran Republican politico, Paul Clark. He says that he accompanied the candidate on a walk through town. And the Democrats, to say nothing of the Republicans, were “enraptured by her.” He then introduces her in a classic New England voice: “Cahly Fiorina, the next president of the United States!”

That is a long, long shot. During the midterm elections of 2010, I wrote a piece for this magazine in which I said, “If Fiorina makes it to the Senate, she’ll be a big star — a big Republican national star. She is bright, personable, articulate, and different. She is a connector with crowds and individuals. But don’t bet the ranch on her making it.” She did not. And you would be doubly foolish — triply foolish, quadruply foolish — to bet the ranch on her in 2016.

RELATED: Carly Fiorina Has Earned the Right to Run as a Woman

She has raised relatively little money, and she is far down in the polls. Yet she is inching up, and, as I’ve said, making waves. Winning plaudits. In September 2008, when Governor Sarah Palin was first campaigning as a vice-presidential nominee, and attracting throngs, Bill Clinton said, “I get why she’s hot out there.” I get why Fiorina is hot, or at least admired, too.

You often hear that what Fiorina is really doing is auditioning for a vice-presidential nomination, or a cabinet post. Frankly, it doesn’t seem that way to me (and she of course denies it, when I sit down with her). She says things like “in my presidency,” as all presidential candidates do. That is boilerplate. But she seems perfectly serious. I have a theory, by the way, about why she’s running: She’s really good at it. And people generally like doing what they’re good at.

But enough of my theories. I ask the candidate, point blank, why she’s doing this. I try not to be too insulting, but I mean, really: Why? She answers in her quiet, determined way:

‘I’m used to being underestimated in my life. I really am.’

“I’m used to being underestimated in my life. I really am. I started as a secretary. I am increasingly offended by the idea that only a politician can be president. Politicians are some of the most mendacious — not all of them, but a lot of them are some of the most mendacious, mediocre, self-serving people I’ve ever met. Really? This is the best we can do? . . .

“I have been through some hard things in my life, and having been through those hard things, I really think that life is measured in love, moments of grace, and positive contribution. This is a positive contribution I can make. I can win this job. I can do this job. I can change the conversation this nation has. I can change how people think about their politics. This is a contribution I can make. And I’m willing to make it.

“And having been through hard things, I’m not afraid of anything anymore. I’m not afraid of what people are going to say. I’m not afraid of what people are going to dig up. I’m not afraid of working hard. I’m not afraid.

“So, to me, this is — honestly, it is hard work, but it is joyful work, and I feel as though it is the work I’m supposed to be doing now. So I’m happy to do it.”

— Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor of National Review. This article originally appeared in the August 10, 2015, issue of NR.

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