MASON CITY, Iowa — For GOP presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina, solving the nation’s biggest challenges is pretty simple — “it’s not rocket science,” as she likes to say.
The former Hewlett-Packard chief executive has been telling audiences in Iowa and elsewhere on the campaign trail recently that a mix of common sense — combined with her business know-how — would yield solutions to issues ranging from securing the border to simplifying tax rates to defeating the Islamic State terrorist group.
“A lot of this isn’t complicated,” Fiorina said at a recent town hall here, adding: “Pretty basic.”
Although some find Fiorina’s no-nonsense approach simplistic, it is helping her gain traction in the 2016 race after months of dogged campaigning. It is also her way of answering the one question she is asked again and again: Can someone who has never held elected office occupy the country’s highest office?
Fiorina is among a host of political outsiders, including front-runner Donald J. Trump, who are dominating the Republican nominating contest at a time of rising voter disgust with traditional politicians.
“Look, I started as a secretary, I’m used to being underestimated,” Fiorina said at a town hall in Alden, Iowa, last week. “I have an absolutely unique résumé. I do understand how the economy works. I understand how the world works and who is in it. I understand how bureaucracies work. I understand how technology works. And I do understand leadership.”
One example of her outlook came during a town hall meeting she hosted here in Mason City, a town of about 28,000 in northern Iowa. The first question came from a veteran, sitting in the third row, who said he was having trouble getting a doctor’s appointment through Veterans Affairs.
“Listen to that story,” Fiorina said. “How long has [VA] been a problem? Decades. How long have politicians been talking about it? Decades.”
Fiorina said she would gather 10 or 12 veterans in a room, including the gentleman from the third row, and ask what they want. Fiorina would then vet this plan via telephone poll, asking Americans to “press one for yes on your smartphone, two for no.”
“You know how to solve these problems,” she said, “so I’m going to ask you.”
Fiorina — who lost in a landslide against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in 2010 — has long touted the corporate skills she gained while working her way up to being the head of Hewlett-Packard. It got her in trouble in 2008, when she lost her position as a surrogate for Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) after saying he could never lead a major corporation, as she had.
Now, the argument that corporate experience trumps politics is a hallmark of her presidential campaign. In Mason City, Fiorina boasted about overseeing a
multibillion-dollar company, meeting with world leaders and negotiating major deals.
But her tenure was rocky. As the first woman to head a Fortune 50 company, she led HP through a controversial merger with Compaq as a recession hit Silicon Valley, then oversaw pay cuts and laid off nearly 30,000 people. Critics questioned why she was spending so much time promoting the company — and herself — on magazine covers and media interviews.
In 2005, the company’s stock fell sharply. Fiorina was soon fired but given a $21 million severance package.
In Mason City, Fiorina, 60, had a different take on her time at HP. When an audience member asked about the difficult choices she had to make in the job, she said she was forced to make “tough calls” as the technology industry faced its most tumultuous period, noting that HP survived when “many of our competitors literally disappeared and every job with them.”
“And, oh, by the way, you didn’t ask but I will volunteer: I got fired at the end of that. At the end of six years, I got fired in a boardroom brawl,” Fiorina said. “Do you know why I got fired? Because I challenged the status quo. When you challenge the status quo, which is what leadership is all about, you make enemies.”
Nodding along in the back row was retiree Sandy Ringstrom, 67, whose favorite candidate is Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who also has never held elected office. She would love to see Fiorina spar with Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton — but she was also struck by how Fiorina approaches problems, gathering input from the crowd before making a decision.
“I’ve been a manager and that’s how I made decisions,” Ringstrom said. “You don’t dictate. You just gather input and make a decision.”
Fiorina’s targeted voters seem to be those who have become enraged with the long waiting lists at VA, the inefficiency of airport security checks, the cumbersome processes at the local DMV. Her town halls at times have become venting sessions — with the promise of these problems being fixed if attendees would be willing to “press one for yes, two for no.”
Fiorina — who has tweeted about giving the Transportation Security Administration a one-star online review on Yelp.com — seemed delighted when a man in the audience went on and on about the difficulty he recently had renewing his driver’s license. “What the hell is going on?” he exclaimed.
“You know what?” Fiorina said, clutching the microphone with both hands. “Your story illustrates a basic fact of bureaucracy. What are bureaucracies? They are rules-based, process-intensive hierarchical organizations where employees pretty quickly get the message to follow the rules, don’t just use your judgment, just follow the rules.”
She began listing off bureaucracy-related questions and asking: “Press one for yes, two for no.” Each time, she received applause.
“I think politicians are making it harder than it needs to be,” said Chris Cork, 66, who lives in Mason City and has volunteered for a number of Republican candidates. “I’ve had it with the status quo. Things need to change.”
But the “press one for yes, two for no” style of leadership was a bit of an oversimplification for many audience members. Not everyone was sure about Fiorina’s approach. One man raised his hand and told Fiorina that he was “ready to press one” — but added: “If I press one and you can’t sell your agenda, what’s next?”
Fiorina held firm that many of the country’s biggest problems can be solved easily with “common sense” because they are “pretty basic.”
“When you all press one for yes, I don’t have to sell my agenda, you sold it,” Fiorina said. “Politicians respond to pressure.”