Carly Fiorina was rather impressive fielding pointed questions from beltway reporters taking their measure of her. The potential aspirant for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination held forth on Iran, religious freedom and why her experience in business makes her qualified to sit in the Oval Office. But a record-scratch moment came about 36 minutes into the hour-long breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
“Well, ma’am, I never met a presidential candidate with pink nail polish on,” said Paul Bedard of the Washington Examiner before asking the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive about women’s issues and how she would better represent women than Hillary Clinton. “Well, there’s always a first,” she replied.
Well, that set off murmurs of sexism on my side of the table. Fiorina’s response, which I’ll get to in a moment, was in keeping with what she told me after the breakfast.
Hustling behind her as she made her way out of the St. Regis, I asked Fiorina about the nail polish comment. And I inquired how she would deal with situations where people focus as much on her appearance as on her policies. Fiorina cut me off before I had a chance to finish the question.
“I’ve been dealing with it all my life,” Fiorina said.
I followed with a question about how she would deal with sexism on the campaign trail, especially if she got the GOP nomination and her Democratic opponent was Clinton. I told her that I could see a New York Post front page screaming “Catfight!” and I asked how she would deal with that. “Well, sometimes you choose to confront,” Fiorina said, “and sometimes you choose to ignore it and just keep going.” She did the latter in response to Bedard.
Fiorina chose to ignore Bedard’s comment about her pale pink nails. She dove right into the substance of his question about whether there were issues that women care about that are different from those men cared about.
If you look at the data and based on all of my experience, every issue is a women’s issue. Women care about all the issues that impact this nation, that impact them, that impact their families. I find it personally insulting as a woman that the Democratic Party talks about women’s issues. Every issue’s a women’s issue. Women care about the economy. They care about jobs. They care about health care. They care about immigration, national security, education, every issue is a woman’s issue. There’s no doubt.
Fiorina then paused for nearly 10 seconds. I wondered if she would challenge the pink polish query. Actually, I hoped she would. Instead, Fiorina dealt with Bedard’s question about how she would represent women better than Clinton. Fiorina’s answer was quite good.
I think that if Hillary Clinton were to face a female nominee, there are a whole set of things that she won’t be able to talk about. She won’t be able to talk about being the first woman president. She won’t be able to talk about a war on women without being challenged. She won’t be able to play the gender card. And so what she will have to run on is her track record, her accomplishments, her candor and trustworthiness and her policies. And I think that’s what elections should be run on. Not identity politics. Not what you look like, but who you are and what you believe and what you’ve done and what you will do.
Fiorina is half right. Identity politics IS important. She even said so implicitly in an earlier response to a question about how running as a business person would be any more successful than it was for Mitt Romney. Pointing to the exit poll showing the 2012 GOP nominee losing by a wide margin the “cares about me” vote, Fiorina said, “For most people, politics is personal.” She added, “Policy is important, but I also think empathy and connection are hugely important. I think that people understanding where you come from, what your story is, what your background is is as important to any leadership role, but particularly running for the president of the United States, as your policies.”
Fiorina is absolutely correct on this score. Yet, for many people that personal connection comes through their identity. Fiorina’s embrace of her female identity — or her unwillingness to explicitly do so — as she seeks to make history in her own right, will determine how they connect with her. I’m not suggesting that being a woman should be the entirety of her message. But it should be a clear part of it. Clinton chose not to play the gender card in 2008 and many believe it cost her. If Fiorina really wants a shot at the White House she shouldn’t make the same mistake.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj