It was a telling moment that almost went unnoticed.
After shaking hands with debate moderator Chris Wallace on Wednesday night, Hillary Clinton strode off the stage into a circle of family. And at the center of that circle was Meg Whitman, who received the first handshake and first hug.
If there’s a better example of Clinton’s support from moderate Republican elites, we can’t think of one.
Whitman, the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, was Clinton’s special guest for the final debate of the general election, seated alongside Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky. Her husband, Griff Harsh, received his own warm greeting from Clinton; in fact, she appeared to ask if he and Chelsea had established their mutual connection to Stanford University. (Harsh, a neurosurgeon, is vice chairman of Stanford Medical Center; Chelsea Clinton earned her bachelor’s degree from the school in 2001.)
Announcing Whitman as a guest was no accident ahead of a debate when Clinton made several targeted appeals to Republican voters. But to observers, their association speaks of more than just political posturing. After all, Clinton is expected to bring at least one Republican and at least eight women into her Cabinet if she wins the White House. Given Whitman’s profile, is it possible we’re seeing signs of a potential nomination in the making?
This would not surprise Whitman’s allies. But before we get to that, let’s properly introduce her.
Better-known in Silicon Valley than among the GOP base, Whitman rose to prominence in the early to mid-2000s as the chief executive who grew eBay from a start-up company to a multibillion dollar powerhouse. In 2010, she ran for governor of California, drawing comparisons in the process to Carly Fiorina — another Republican technology executive who set out to parlay her business expertise into public office.
Neither Whitman nor Fiorina (who was then running for Senate against Barbara Boxer) won their races. But unlike her counterpart, Whitman has declined to pursue elected office again. Starting in 2008, when she served as co-chair of John McCain’s presidential campaign, she amassed significant clout in Republican donor circles. This continued in 2012, when she served as Mitt Romney’s national finance co-chair, and during this election, when she led the finance side of Chris Christie’s ill-fated presidential campaign.
In case it’s not clear, Whitman is not typically inclined to support Democrats. Over the course of her career, she has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican PACs, leaders and state parties.
This time, however, Donald Trump was a bridge too far.
Whitman’s staunch opposition to the business mogul was clear on March 3, three weeks after Christie dropped out of the primary, when she made a $100,000 contribution to the anti-Trump Our Principles super PAC founded by former Romney campaign aide Katie Packer. In June, she made headlines when she called Trump a demagogue and compared him to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini at a private gathering of GOP elders. (In a preview of criticism to come, Whitman pushed Paul D. Ryan to explain how he could support a candidate with Trump’s temperament.)
The official denunciation came at the beginning of August. By the end of the month, she was campaigning for Clinton in Colorado.
“To vote Republican out of party loyalty alone would be to endorse a candidacy that I believe has exploited anger, grievance, xenophobia and racial division,” Whitman wrote Aug. 3 in a LinkedIn post. “Donald Trump’s demagoguery has undermined the fabric of our national character.”
Associates of Whitman speculated about a Cabinet offer should Clinton win; several imagined Whitman leading the Commerce Department or the Office of Management and Budget, or in a senior White House role. “With the country so terribly divided, Clinton would be well-advised to have a moderate Republican like Meg join her administration,” one ally said.
The truth is, Whitman is a perennial subject of the transition rumor mill. McCain floated her as a potential treasury secretary during his Oct. 7, 2008, debate against Barack Obama, and in 2012 Romney called her the model for the kind of women leaders he hoped to surround himself with as president. (She said she was “flattered” but did not plan to leave Hewlett-Packard.)
It’s still not clear if Whitman would want to leave the corporate world should Clinton win and offer her a position. As with Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, it might come down to what the position is.
*Clinton has pledged to make her Cabinet at least half women. That’s at least eight spots, or 11-12 if you include Cabinet-rank positions in the total count.