Besides the record-scratch moment over her pink nail polish, yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor breakfast with Carly Fiorina was notable for the pummeling she took for her tenure as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard. Now, I wouldn’t have thought too much of the back-and-forth, except it was the second time this week that the prospective 2016 Republican presidential aspirant faced such tough questioning. The harshness of the tone and her steely response proved two things: 1) Fiorina is being taken seriously. 2) She is in a no-win situation.
Fiorina’s first set-to was on “Morning Joe” on Monday. Hillary Clinton announced her presidential run the day before, and the California Republican was on the MSNBC show casting doubt on the New York Democrat’s accomplishments. Co-anchor Mika Brzezinski asked Fiorina to explain her negative critique of Clinton and then hammered her with an equally harsh critique.
Brzezinski: I’ve been reading and listening to your criticisms of her, which really are quite searing, again, focusing on her track record of accomplishment. And I’m just wondering, when you talk about blemishes, you have an amazing round of accomplishments in your life, but someone could say it like this, you ran for Senate and lost. You worked for John McCain, you were moved off that campaign, and he lost. You had a tenure at Hewlett-Packard that a lot of people describe as extremely rocky, destroying jobs, and destroying the company’s reputation. Are you really the right person to be criticizing Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments or lack thereof?
Fiorina: Well, you’ve clearly have been reading the Democratic talking points…
Brzezinski: I’m reading Fortune, I’m reading the New York Times.
Fiorina: We accomplished a lot at Hewlett-Packard. We doubled the size of the company to almost $90 billion. We quadrupled the growth rate from 2% to 9%, we tripled the rate of innovation to 11 patents a day, we quadrupled cash flow, we went from lagging to leading in every product category, and every market segment, and in technology, if you’re lagging, you’re failing. If you’re leading, you’re growing jobs, and growing products, which we did. With regard to California, yes, absolutely I lost that general campaign, but I won more Republican votes, more Democratic votes, and more Independent votes than virtually anyone else running at any point in that cycle. That’s how big California is, and it’s a demonstration of the fact that a conservative non-politician can reach beyond our party and talk with Democrats and Independents alike.
Steve Rattner, the former car czar for President Obama who regularly appears on the show, delved deeper into Fiorina’s messy departure from Hewlett-Packard, saying, “[Y]ou were fired after a disastrous merger with Compaq, when the stock price collapsed, and a lot of really bad stuff happened.” Fiorina pushed back, telling Rattner that the merger was “successful” and that it “set the company up for great success.” To which, Rattner replied, “[I]t was a successful merger because your successor managed to execute what you were not able to execute, which is why the board fired you, I believe.”
Fiorina received presidential-level media scrutiny at yesterday’s breakfast from Carl Leubsdorf of the Dallas Morning News. He put her through her paces as he pressed her on her qualifications to sit in the Oval Office. (Fast forward to 14:58).
Leubsdorf: I want to get back to the question of why you’re running and your experience. There’s been a lot of criticism over the last six years that Barack Obama came to the presidency very unprepared for the job of president. He’d been in the Illinois state senate eight years. He’d been in the United States Senate four years. He dealt with a lot of kind of issues you deal with but was not prepared. You’re coming at it saying that you’re not a politician. You have even less experience in government than he had. You have a mixed record to be charitable about it in business, very controversial record. Why, what is it that you have that would enable you to perform this very difficult job that people with far more experience had trouble performing?
Fiorina: I think we have to talk about what’s really relevant experience. First, let’s talk about the business record. The thing about business unlike politics, perhaps, in business the numbers and the facts are clear. So, there’s no question….
Leubsdorf: The facts aren’t clear. They kicked you out, but you say you laid the basis for future success. So that’s a mixed record. I’m talking about your, what is in your background and in your knowledge that would enable you to perform as president?
Fiorina: I understand your question. Let me tell you the facts about my record that are not controversial…
Leubsdorf: Why don’t you answer the question?
Fiorina: I will. The facts of my record are, we doubled the size of the company to almost 90 billion. We took it from two percent growth to nine percent growth. We tripled the rate of innovation to 11 patents a day. We quadrupled cash flow. We went from market laggard to market leader in every product category and every market segment. And that all happened within the six years that I was there. So there’s nothing that can be disputed about those numbers. That’s the interesting thing about business. The track record and the numbers are clear.
Let me answer your question very specifically. Barack Obama and many others have had their entire experience in politics. So what does that mean they don’t understand as well as I do? They don’t understand how the economy actually functions. I have spent 25 years in the world. I know many of the world leaders on the stage today. I chaired the advisory board at the CIA. I advised secretaries of defense, as well as secretaries of state. So I understand how the world works and who’s in the world. I haven’t had photo ops with world leaders. I’ve done deals with world leaders.
Fiorina’s answer to Leubsdorf was essentially the same to Rattner. Her tenure at Hewlett-Packard was great, her departure was admittedly messy, but she laid the path for the company’s future success. But the cynicism that greeted her explanation will dog her for the entirety of her presidential campaign, assuming Fiorina jumps into the race. And Fiorina better take note. The rest of her tense conversation with Leubsdorf will be the norm if she does.
People like the idea of a business person taking Washington by the lapels and shaking some sense into it. But they want the right one. Said person should be relatable or successful, preferably both. Mitt Romney was successful, but oh so unrelatable. Remember, he lost the “cares about people like me” vote to President Obama by 63 points. Fiorina might be more relatable, but her stormy tenure at Hewlett-Packard will give people pause.
And therein lies the no-win world in which Fiorina finds herself. She defends her business experience convincingly and with conviction. She has a reasonable explanation for why she was kicked to the curb. But that will give rise to a serious question that Fiorina won’t be able to answer to anyone’s satisfaction: If she was fired because she ran her company into the ground, voters could very well think, why on earth would we want her to run the most complex organization in the world?
My hunch is they won’t.
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