No one would have imagined six months ago that the most surprising candidate in the GOP 2016 presidential primary would be former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina. But she is drawing big crowds and consistently getting good reviews for her speeches. The Des Moines Register reported, “Last Wednesday, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO attracted the second-biggest crowd that Urbandale’s Westside Conservative Club has seen in two presidential election cycles — this one and the previous one. Nearly 300 came to the Clinton County GOP’s spring dinner Thursday night for Fiorina’s keynote speech. At the spaghetti dinner Friday night for the Johnson County GOP, more tables had to be brought out to handle a bigger-than-anticipated audience of 260. About 110 Iowans showed up Saturday morning for a Webster County Republican Women event.”
It is not hard to see why she is connecting with voters. For one thing, she is working her tail off. (“At the end of a five-day barnstorm last week, Fiorina said she traveled 1,222 miles and spoke to 2,400 Iowans in 15 towns. She repeatedly expressed gratitude for all the fanfare she’s getting.”) She has resisted pandering on ethanol and same-sex marriage. (“Fiorina told Iowans she personally believes in the church definition of marriage as one man, one woman, but backs marriage equality for gay couples because she believes the government can’t confer benefits on its citizens unequally. At Hewlett-Packard, benefits were extended to both same-sex and heterosexual couples.”)
Certainly some of the excitement is due to her gender and her knack for sharply honed barbs against Hillary Clinton. But in some respects, she is a different kind of woman candidate for Republicans. She’s no Sarah Palin or former representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). She is poised, polished, sophisticated and knowledgeable about the world. Moreover, she is not a woman politician; she is an accomplished woman running for political office. That differentiates her from prior women candidates and every male candidate except Ben Carson. The contempt and anger among Republicans for government ineptitude and malfeasance cannot be overstated, and justified or not, they view the private sector as a place where things work, things get accomplished and people are held accountable. (Ironically, Fiorina, fired from Hewlett-Packard in a storm of publicity, is one of those who was held accountable.)
What can other candidates learn from Fiorina?
1. Voters need a story. She has a great one to tell, from medieval history major to secretary to CEO to fired CEO to a personal and political revival.
2. Hardship is endearing. She is a cancer survivor (she famously said that “after chemotherapy, Barbara Boxer just isn’t that scary anymore”). She lost a stepdaughter to drug addiction. She got fired. People don’t resent success, but they love someone who has overcome adversity.
3. Politicians sound the same. Overly dramatic delivery, self-puffery and unfunny jokes are the telltale signs of a professional politician. Fiorina, by contrast, is genuinely funny and engaging. Her attacks on Clinton are witty (“Flying is an activity not an accomplishment”). And she is new to the scene for the vast majority of voters. It’s not just her gender but her storytelling, freshness and life experiences that make her interesting to listen to.
4. She knows her stuff. Her policy positions are sound, and she is more knowledgeable than some of the professional politicians when it comes to foreign policy. She bashed the president’s assertion that our only option is his cruddy Iran deal or war: “[T]his is the false choice that President Obama always presents to us. There’s nothing we can do in the Middle East unless we go to war. There’s nothing we can do to push back against Russia unless we go to war. And of course, the one thing we could and should be doing in all of those circumstances is supporting our allies as they have asked us to. So we would support Israel by stopping talking to Iran now. You know, it’s amazing to me, President Obama laid out a very clear set of goals for this deal when this process first started. Not a single one of those goals has been achieved. So not one of their nuclear facilities is being taken apart, including the one buried in the mountain, not one of their 19,000 centrifuges is being dismantled. Yes, supposedly, they’re reducing some of their nuclear material, but now, they’ve decided no, we’re not willing to ship it out to Russia. That was an agreement made years ago they would ship it out to Russia. No, now they’re reneging on this. The truth is this is a terrible deal, and we should immediately impose sanctions, frankly, with or without the international community.”
5. Her message is uplifting. She is both eloquent and nonjudgmental on abortion, extolling the value of every life. “Every person has the capacity, has the desire to live a life of dignity and purpose and meaning.” She speaks poignantly about how we are losing a sense of “limitless possibility,” while insisting everyone has the ability to live a life of meaning.
6. She projects authority. She talks from experience about the difference between managers and leaders and the danger of groupthink. Her precise delivery and her direct, declarative sentences engender respect and demand attention.
7. She emphasizes results. She tweaks Clinton for lack of accomplishment and scolds the Department of Veterans Affairs for tying vets up in mounds of paperwork. She reminds us how process-oriented politicians can be and how little they get done.
8. She has done something in life. Her travels, her business and even her failures make her seem more real and give her a wealth of experience out there in the real world that so many politicians lack. Many pols running as “outsiders” seem provincial or even ignorant; she certainly does not.
I have no idea how well she can do in the primaries, but her campaign — like Ed Gillespie’s in Virginia — is a pleasure to watch and a textbook in presenting conservatives as common-sense, empathetic and tuned-in problem solvers. If only all politicians could do as well as Fiorina.