In this three-part series, we look at the candidacy of the new darling of the Republican Party, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina. We will look at the troubling rise of Carly Fiorina in the Republican field in the context of gender politics in the current election cycle, and how that speaks volumes about the desperation of Republicans to hand their banner to a female carrier. In the second and third parts, the major premises of Fiorina’s campaign and her rationale for running—her claim to have a superstar record as a self-made corporate executive—are shown to be mostly false, begging the question, why should people even consider her a serious candidate?
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse September 27, 2015
When Men Need a Woman: Republicans’ Desperation for Gender Diversity + Plummeting Standards for Republican Candidates = Carly Fiorina
AMMAN — There is something sad about Carly Fiorina’s trajectory that speaks volumes about both the weakness and desperation of today’s Republican Party. Fiorina is truly an unremarkable candidate; she is utterly lacking in charisma and charm and even after two impressive debate performances, the media has not really critically analyzed or challenged her on her views, past, and record.
Despite her at generously best questionable record, Republicans were desperate to make a big deal out of her modestly competent performance at the second-tier “kids’-table” debate in early August, held for the seven bottom-feeders out of a field that then numbered seventeen candidates. That she was able to shine surrounded by six of the worst candidates out of seventeen total is hardly a remarkable achievement. In fact, I would say Santorum’s performance was just as good. But the main-debate was one populated by seven white men, two Latino men who are very assimilated in speech and mannerisms and neither of whom really project a strong Latin flavor nor represent, generally, the views of American Latinos, and one black man whose professional experience as a world-renown neurosurgeon is also hardly representative of the African-American community (though his childhood in poverty is) and whose political views that severely downplay the issue of racism put him within an extreme minority of African-Americans and at odds with them overall as a group of voters; the Republicans have almost no hope of making any large inroads with African-Americans this election cycle, and their extreme positions on immigration have made any significant gains with Latinos quite unlikely, too; the white vote and the male vote are the only voting groups organized by gender or organized by race/ethnicity that Republicans won in 2012. Women and all ethnic/racial minorities voted for Obama by significant margins, though Romney did manage to win a majority of white women, just not a majority of women overall. Elevating Rick Santorum—a white male—into the top ten just to replace another lower-polling white male would serve no purpose for the conservative media, desperate to find a way to chip into the Democratic demographic coalition that, if preserved, all but guarantees Democrats key victories in battleground states and therefore the White House. After all, unless Republicans win more women or minorities, it is virtually certain that they will not win the White House again, given America’s changing demographics.
Compared to Democrats’ seasoned female politicians—women like Hillary Clinton, Claire McCaskill, Barbara Mikulski, Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi and, of course, Barbara Boxer, who beat Fiorina in her 2010 U.S Senate bid by a whopping ten percentage points(52% to 42%), and even compared to newcomer Elizabeth Warren, Fiorina is revealed as particularly weak as a potential politician, unable to stand against any one of these women, all of whom are capable of speaking passionately (and accurately!) at length and in depth on a wide array of public policy and societal issues. Clearly, the female bench for the Democratic Party is deep, whereas the lack of depth on the Republican side is quite revealing; if anyone wants to dispute these relative strengths, one only need remind such an individual that the last two major Republican female politicians to seriously campaign for federal executive office were Michelle Bachmann in 2012 and Sarah Palin in 2008.
Especially fearing a potential Hillary Clinton candidacy, conservatives and their media outlets were desperate to find an excuse to elevate Fiorina as the sole female candidate out of seventeen candidates, in part so they could present her as a rebuttal to the idea that the Republican Party is waging a “war against women” or is a man’s party so they could hope to begin to close the significant gender gap their party suffers with women in relation to Democrats (in 2012, women went for Obama 55% to 44% for Romney, a gap of eleven percentage points, and 56% for Obama to 43% for McCain in 2008, a thirteen-point-gap, compared with 51% who went for Kerry to 48% for Bush in 2004, a gap of just three percentage points; in addition, women were a majority of voters in these elections, 53% in the last two). Fox News personality Megyn Kelly, disregarding her responsibility to be a neutral moderator, was even inappropriately promoting Fiorina (“It’s a good thing Carly Fiorina isn’t here,” Kelly beamed, “She unleashed a can [of whoopass?] earlier tonight.”) at the beginning of the first main top-ten debate, of which Fiorina was not even a part. Republicans and conservative media were also eager to have her aggressively go after Hillary Clinton, fearful that male aggression against Hillary would be viewed less favorably and as sexist. The mainstream media was also fairly desperate to see Fiorina graduate to the top tier to add some much needed gender diversity to the coverage of the Republican race, was worried that an all-male stage might be or become boring (even with the likes of Mr. Trump on that stage), wanted to be able to have the narrative be about Trump and Fiorina (a much more engaging, moneymaking narrative than just Trump vs. everybody else), and wanted to be able to promote the relatively revenue-generating narrative of a potential woman-vs-woman, Fiorina vs. Clinton matchup in the general election. This desire to promote a woman may have had a more pressing quality as Republicans are realizing that Rubio, Cruz, and Carson may not be the vehicles to winning over minority voters that they had hoped they would be and in light of the the dawning realization that the current Democratic coalition of women and minority voters are essentially unbeatable in terms of Electoral College math. If they are dooming themselves with minority voters, the Republicans are looking to the other part of that equation—women—for salvation from near-certain defeat.
Thus, when the overall bland, unremarkable, and non-headline-generating kids’ table debate finished, and Fiorina’s competition looked weak except for Santorum, it was clear that crowning Fiorina and not Santorum the winner would serve both the conservative and mainstream media’s interests, as well as the Republican Party’s. That is not to suggest a media or media-GOP conspiracy per se, but with weak performances and no clear winner in substance or style, the media and Party surrogates generally fill in the void and affect the narrative more than usual in such close and boring circumstances. Never mind that Fiorina did not face a single attack from other candidates and that they were more or less ignoring her as a non-threat, or that the substance behind her well-delivered lines was often fantastical. Though over the course of more than a month Fiorina was only to able to rise a few points in the polls, it was a boost nonetheless and enough (after a rule change and Fiorina complaining very vocally about the possibility of not being in the main debate) to get Fiorina into the main debate in the second round of debates.
Carly Climbs to the Top Tier… of Mediocrity
Between all the coverage over the question of whether she would be in the main debate, and of Trump’s verbal attack on—of all things—Fiorina’s face, it was clear that it would not take much for her to be crowned a “winner” of the second top-tier debate. Barring any horrendous gaffes, on such a crowded stage with such a limited opportunity to be questioned or to go into detail, simply rattling off rehearsed lines but rattling them off well was always going to be enough for the media and conservatives to crow loudly about her as a “victor,” something new, interesting, different, and easily distinguishable. Heck, surrounded by ten men wearing dark suits, she wore a bright blue skirt suit with blue high heels and had red nail polish on her fingernails. Apart from Mr. Trump, the rest of the candidates that shared the stage with Fiorina have, unlike Fiorina, been in the public eye for some time and were therefore quite predictable. As I wrote before, this also made most of them—and the debate—rather boring; in fact, it was not even really a debate, and whatever you want to call it, it was quite light on substance. In addition, a significant number of the men on the stage were disturbingly inarticulate: Bush, Walker, (especially) Carson, and (surprisingly) Paul have all struggled verbally on stage. Except for Christie and Rubio, the rest were rather humdrum in their performances. Just as in her first kids’ table debate appearance, Fiorina conducted herself with poise, skillfully delivering what still came off as rehearsed talking points and sound bites, nothing more, nothing less. Never mind that a huge chunk of what came out of her mouth was misleading at best or flat-out factually wrong (lies?), clearly delusional, or blatant distortions at worst; particularly shameful were her exaggerated fabrications regarding the much overhyped Planned Parenthood abortion videos (many Republicans—including a newly hard-line Carly Fiorina—are even for threatening to shut down the government if Congress does not vote to completely defund the organization even though abortion services are only a tiny part of what planned parenthood does—3% of all activities for about 12% of its patients—but Speaker Boehner’s recent resignation announcement may have avoided a shutdown, at least for some time).
In any event, a predictable and somewhat ridiculous media narrative would emerge out of the debate: Fiorina “won.” Because, there have to be “winners” and “losers” in these things. This narrative was the consensus of both the mainstream and conservative media. In the aftermath of the debate and her glowing press coverage, Fiorina jumped all the way up to the number #2 and #3 spots in the various post-debate polls in a battle with Dr. Carson for the #2 spot, both nationally and in polls for the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, though Dr. Carson seems to generally have an edge over her. Trump went down slightly, but still maintains what is generally a dominant lead, topping every post-debate poll. Fiorina, though, has emerged as a force in the Republican contest now, gaining polling support and momentum, but it remains to be seen if she will be able to pull in significantly more money. Still, she seems competent enough not to quickly fade like so many of the Republican candidates did in the 2012 primary cycle.
At the same time, understanding the popularity of Trump means that becoming the media and Republican Establishment’s new darling could also undermine her with the base. Fiorina is, after all, only an “outsider” by virtue of defeat at the hands of Boxer, and her being a corporate insider who contributed to the tech bubble disasters is something to remember, as well. Understanding Trump supporters also suggests there may be little ability for her to take support away from Donald Trump, as it is likely they are not even competing for many of the same voters. Her rise is likely to come at the expense of Bush and Rubio, not Trump, and even more so if she becomes to be seen as a new weapon of the Establishment.
In the end, the rise of a woman like Fiorina with a terrible record (more on that record soon) to the top tier of Republican candidates tells us a lot about the weakness of today’s Republican party, its severe lack of a pool of impressive potential female candidates, and its insecurity about being able to win female votes. Can Fiorina do anything to address these problems? Not likely, not when she exemplifies all of these problems (some food for thought: Fiorina lost the female vote to Boxer in 2010 55% to 39%, a gap of sixteen percentage points!).
Even at the second debate, most candidates, save for Trump and Christie, stayed away from attacking Fiorina. That will likely change now that she poses more of a serious threat. And even after all the stage theatrics, her real vulnerability is about to be front and center, and is the main reason why her winning the nomination and especially the presidency is a longshot. I am talking, of course, about what is the main premise of her campaign and how Fiorina has defined herself for years: that narrative of hers that she is a trailblazing self-made secretary-to-CEO global business leader who could play hardball with the boys and lead major corporations to dazzling success. That awful record will be the subject of analysis in the next two parts of this series.
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