Of the fifteen major candidates for the GOP, three have never held elective office: Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. In recent weeks, perhaps because of this lack of government experience, all these candidates have been doing very well in the polls.
Both Trump and Carson have made statements that made them seem poorly informed on a variety of issues. Both have made offensive comments, though Trump to a significantly higher degree than Ben Carson. Neither of these statements apply, however, to Carly Fiorina.
Fiorina’s debate performances have rocketed her from near the bottom in the polls to near the top. On policy, Fiorina is firmly within the GOP mainstream. She has refrained from advocating the more extreme positions some of her rivals have advanced. Depending on the issue, there are candidates to her right or to her left, or both.
Her policy proposals are not why she has catapulted in the polls, but it should be noted that, unlike some of her opponents, she doesn’t shy away from discussing policy. It’s also obvious Fiorina has a firm understanding of the issues, even if one disagrees with her.
Her success up to this point is largely a result of her being one of the most articulate, and ironically one of the most politically skilled, candidates in the race. Her much discussed debate with Donald Trump provides an example of this.
When asked to respond to Trump’s statement that Fiorina’s face is a reason she shouldn’t be president, she said, referencing a line Trump used in accusing Jeb Bush of sexism, “You know it’s interesting to me, Mr. Trump said that he heard Mr. Bush very clearly. And what Mr. Bush said. I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said [about her face].”
Some might say that this is a meaningless point, but that view misses two things. First, she was asked to respond. Second, it shows remarkable political skill. She incorporated a statement Trump had just finished making against Jeb Bush, indicating that her response wasn’t scripted and that she was paying close attention to her opponents. It also was a dignified answer that did not make her appear a victim.
Female politicians, to a greater degree than their male counterparts, are portrayed as victims when they respond to attacks. That victimhood is associated with weakness and emotional instability. Fiorina’s answer prevented such a narrative from developing.
Criticism of Carly Fiorina often takes one of three forms: criticizing her failed Senate candidacy, criticizing her business career, or criticizing her Planned Parenthood comments. The first of these is an utterly desperate attack. She ran for the the Senate in 2010 and lost, true, but this leaves out a few very important details. First, she ran in California, a Democratic stronghold. Second, she ran against Barbara Boxer, a three term incumbent. A Fiorina win would have been remarkable.
Criticism of her business record also misses the mark. It’s true that Fiorina’s record at HP was mixed. Under her leadership, HP did worse than some competitors but better than others. She’s not running for a CEO position, though. When people criticize her business record, they’re implicitly arguing that a candidate’s business record matters.
I’m not so sure that it does to a large extent, but let’s assume that it does. The only two candidates known for their business experience (in either field) are Fiorina and Donald Trump. If one really cares about private sector experience, a flawed record is still stronger than basically no record at all.
Another major area of controversy has been Fiorina’s comments during the CNN debate about the Planned Parenthood videos. It was probably the most impassioned part of the night for Carly Fiorina.
She said, “Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’”
Many argued that Fiorina’s statement was false. Saying so is misleading. Fiorina’s statement is not completely, literally true, but the main substance of it is. The Center for Medical Progress, a pro-life group that has been releasing anti-abortion videos, has one that shows a baby who survived an abortion. The baby is shown kicking in a metal bowl as he dies alone.
That particular clip does not have anyone talking about keeping him alive in order to harvest his brain, but the clip was put into the video as a former “procurement technician” discusses how she was involved with harvesting the brain of an aborted baby. True, the clip shown in the video is there for context, but that does not in any way negate the main thrust of what Fiorina said.
The GOP is sometimes stereotyped as being composed primarily of boring, old men. Fiorina defies this stereotype. She is engaging and articulate. Also, at a time when hatred of party establishments seem to be prevalent, she’s an outsider capable of having a mature discussion of policy. If she doesn’t receive the GOP nomination, Republicans should hope she still remains in the public eye.