Politics & Policy

The Firm, Forceful, and Formidable Carly Fiorina: An Interview

Fiorina at the GOP debate in Boulder. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)

When people first watch and listen to presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, they sense that she is both tough and seemingly fearless, and they like it. And they sense that she is not one of these typical politicians relying on handlers to tell her what to say and to protect her from herself.

On the latter point, journalists who have spent lifetimes in the business are thoroughly accustomed to the habit of the pre-interview interview: The staff, the handlers, want to know in advance what the topics will be, what to “prepare” for, what to program their candidate to say.

Not Fiorina. Given several chances in advance to touch at least on the broad outlines of my scheduled phone interview with her, her aides seemed bemused. She’ll handle anything you can throw at her, they said, in so many words. We don’t need to worry about her.

It was, is, refreshing.

So, I jumped right in. What follows is an almost complete transcript of the interview, although I was typing the answers, not audio-recording, so I may have missed a few words here and there (but without missing any points of substance). The first question, sorry to say, was a bit long-winded, on my part.


Quin Hillyer: Most people have heard your strong defense of your tenure at Hewlett-Packard, and most people to whom I talk, not being intimately familiar with the corporate boardroom, seem willing to credit your explanation. But here’s what I hear them say: They still want to know, considering that your last two big roles ended inauspiciously with the firing at HP and the landslide loss for the Senate, what in your experience makes you not just someone with at least some business acumen who can articulate common principles well, but someone actually qualified and ready to be president of the United States. They say that if you can’t win over a corporate board, how can you win over Congress and the public, and how can you make a vast bureaucracy work? What makes you ready, right now, to be president?

Carly Fiorina: Well, I did win over a board. I won over a whole company for six years. I was recruited to save a company, and I did save it. But I was fired over a principle. The principle was whether board members should talk [about internal company affairs] outside the board room. I said no. They said yes. They won. So be it.

On that Senate race, it was California, a state that is overwhelmingly Democratic. But I made Barbara Boxer really have to work to be reelected. We forced the Democrats to spend $30 million to save a seat they thought they had in the hand. Barack Obama had to fly out there to give Boxer a boost when he could have been helping other Democrats. But, even so, I won more Republican votes [in terms of raw numbers] that year than any other candidate in the country; I won more independent votes than any other candidate in the country, and I won more Democratic votes than any other Republican candidate.

I have a track record of leadership and success, starting from the very bottom and going to the top. I have a track record not just in business but in charities, big ones. Hewlett-Packard was a larger organization than any of the state governments, in any of the 50 states, in terms of its budget, in terms of its complexity, in terms of its technology. I have more experience in the economy, in world affairs, with bureaucracy, with technology, with leadership, than anyone else running.

Democrats want to boil my lifetime of leadership down to a Senate race and a boardroom brawl. Maybe some of my opponents do as well. But that’s just a caricature of someone the Democrats fear.

Hillyer: On issues: If there’s any subject on which a business background might give you insight into an area where most people actually do tangle with the federal government, it’s in the realm of regulations. All conservatives say they want to drastically reduce red tape and bring the bureaucracy to heel; very few say exactly how. So — how, specifically, would you attack the dual, related problems of over-regulation and an unaccountable and overlarge bureaucracy?

Fiorina: First, I would harness the power of the citizenry to do it. Let me tell you specifically what I mean. There are two things we must do. The first is to do a top-to-bottom review of every single regulation on the books, something we have not done for 50 years. Every single regulation needs to be re-justified. Most will not be, by the way. Second, we need to pass the REINS Act. It’s languishing on the floor of the House. It would put responsibility for regulations where it belongs, with Congress. We are not a nation of laws anymore, but of rules. Rules roll out from a bureaucracy that is not accountable, [while Congress takes no responsibility]. But Congress should have to say whether it approves of the regulation, should have to vote for it or not instead of standing on the sidelines but not doing anything about it.


Hillyer: Sorry to interrupt, but, just to be clear, the REINS Act would apply only to rules costing $100 million or more per year, so . . .

Crony capitalism is fostered by big, complicated, powerful government. Because only the big and the powerful can deal with it.

Fiorina: Well, consider the new rule on the “waters of the U.S.” or the NLRB decision to change the definition of franchisees and franchisers. . . . [She gives two more examples]. They’ve all rolled out in the last four years. They have crushing impact. The EPA now controls 95 percent of the groundwater in Iowa. Let’s start with that, those big regulations.

Now here’s what I mean by engaging the power of citizenry. I’m going to ask Americans to take out their smartphones. I’ll be giving a weekly radio address. I’ll outline the options. Then I’ll ask, do you want this regulation or not? Do you approve of that regulation? If yes, push one; if no, push two. There actually is an app for that. The political process responds to pressure. We know it; it works. The leader of this nation needs to work with the citizens of this nation to put pressure on the political class.

Then we also need to go to zero-based budgeting, so we know where every dollar is spent. All we talk about is the rate of increase over last year’s budget, never about saving. Because all the money is already spoken for. But [under zero-based budgeting,] it can’t be. Congress has to justify every dollar spent in every agency, every year.

Hillyer: Assuming that you join the other candidates in wanting to get rid of Obamacare: The big tactical and legislative-process debate on the right is between two options on the “How?” part of the equation. Should it be dismantled and, where necessary, replaced, piecemeal, or should the whole thing be repealed in one fell swoop?

Fiorina: The whole thing needs to be repealed. The reason the whole thing needs to be repealed is that complexity kills. It is so complicated between the law and the regulations. Unless we kill the whole thing, we will still be stuck with completely unworkable complexity. And what happens with complexity is that hospitals are consolidating, drug companies are consolidating, insurance is consolidating: In other words, the big interests that built this bill are bulking up to deal with the complexity. It’s called crony capitalism.

Crony capitalism is fostered by big, complicated, powerful government. Because only the big and the powerful can deal with it. So this is a big, complicated, powerful set of laws and regulations. Meanwhile, as the hospitals and pharmaceuticals get bulked up, who is getting hurt? The small and the powerless businesses, and the individual families that are the customers.

And the poor aren’t even helped. The poor, more and more of them, get dumped by Obamacare into Medicaid. But because the reimbursement process is so complicated and expensive, fewer and fewer doctors are willing to participate in Medicaid. Putting more people into a program where there are fewer doctors available to serve them — well, who are we helping, then? Not the poor people.

I just spoke to a nurse practitioner this morning, who was saying there are more and more regulations telling these nurse practitioners how to do their job. She said they are spending more and more time responding to bureaucrats and less and less time helping patients. Who benefits there?

Hillyer: People running for office usually hate “horse race” questions, but for my last one, I think people do want to know: After what were generally seen as excellent debate performances, you shot up in the polls, only to fall back down to, well, mid single digits. If you have another good performance, what plans do you have this time to sustain any polling boost you get, rather than have it be just a temporary spike?

Fiorina: Well, let’s remember how this started. On May 4, I was 16th of 16. Polls did not even ask my name. Now we’re on the main stage — essentially tied with Bush, the man who was supposedly going to win it all. I feel really good about where I am. I think the momentum that my trajectory presents is unlike any other candidate’s trajectory. I wasn’t a celebrity, and was an unknown — less than 4 percent of American people had heard my name.  But now I’m in the top tier. I’m going to continue that trajectory.


That’s it for the interview. A few quick impressions and comments:

First, if you want “warm fuzzies,” you aren’t going to get them from Carly Fiorina. She’s all business, all mission-driven, often fiercely so, not just in words but in tone and demeanor. But this isn’t an election cycle for warm fuzzies. This certainly isn’t a Republican primary electorate looking for a Slick Willie to feel our pain.

#related#On the other hand, a degree of empathy — or at least approachability — is probably needed for leavening purposes. Can Carly Fiorina just sort of hang out in Iowa diners like Rick Santorum in 2012, winning people over, one by one, with his authenticity and bedrock beliefs? Or can she trudge through New Hampshire snows with plucky enthusiasm, like John McCain in his 2008 comeback? (This is a comment not on McCain’s desirability as a candidate for conservatives back then but on his campaigning style and attitude.)

But style points aside, both good and bad, this is a formidable lady. Philosophically sound, winningly eloquent, attitudinally unflappable — and with an aura of confidence that could, under the right circumstances, prove inspirational.

Carly Fiorina is an asset not just to the Republican presidential field, but to the American body politic.


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