August 9, 2015
Carly Fiorina’s presidential announcement on May 4 was met with a collective yawn. One hundred days later and she’s the new object of media interest. Why? Did one debate matter THAT much? Is she a legitimate nominee in a field of this size and depth?
The Willkie Exception
In 1940, Republicans nominated Commonwealth & Southern President Wendell Willkie to run against FDR in his unprecedented attempt for a third term. This remains the only time since 1808 that a major party has nominated a candidate who never held elected office nor was a military general in wartime.
If Fiorina were to win the nomination, it would be the second time in 208 years that someone with her background was selected. Wilkie’s selection broke a deadlock between Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft, and New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey.
Unlike this year, where there are a number of high-profile, top-tier candidates, the leading option heading into the 1940 convention (Dewey) was a 38-year-old who had successfully prosecuted Lucky Luciano, but never served in congress or as a governor. Had they not selected Willkie, Republicans may have made an exception to the normal credentials anyway.
Back in the day (pre-1972), primaries were optional. Some states had them, but you couldn’t earn enough delegates to secure the nomination prior to the convention. In some open primary states, a popular senator or governor from that state would run as a “favorite son” with the aim of collecting delegates to control at the convention.
Less proven candidates like Dewey would often enter primaries to prove electability and build their case for the convention. The best example of this was JFK in 1960, entering key primaries in heavily protestant states to prove his catholicism wouldn’t keep him from winning a general election.
However, decisions were made at the convention, in some cases in the proverbial smoke-filled room. This made Willkie’s task even more difficult, as he needed to convince party leaders to pick an outsider, not just primary and caucus voters. While no set of circumstances will convince party elders to sign off on Donald Trump, Willkie got the official East Coast Republican Establishment Seal of Approval.
Much like the immortal Charles C. Pinckney, 1804 and 1808 Federalist Party nominee, Willkie lost in November, though most observers at the time thought he gave FDR a strong run. As such, we’ve never had a non-general, non-elected office winner as president.
So that’s Fiorina’s first hurdle. Candidates with her background are virtually never nominated, and none have ever won. Furthermore, the Federalists who nominated Pinckney twice were in the process of losing their status as a major party. Willkie had the privilege of matching up against FDR, the most electorally successful president in American history.
Why would Republicans take this sort of chance in a winnable election year?
One reason why Fiorina is drawing attention is her comfort in directly attacking presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. This was her angle from the beginning, and the key justification for her existence in the race.
Iowans, journalists and donors were already very familiar with what the rest of us heard during Thursday’s happy hour debate event. However, she wasn’t receiving tons of press attention or multiple-million dollar checks due to questions about viability. As great as Carly sounded in virtually any setting, it’s hard to get excited about someone running 13th or 14th in the national polls.
The minute she got some exposure, the individuals already impressed over the past several months were ready to book her on Sunday shows, write articles, and send money.
Nobody is too certain what ideology or which specific proposals are likely to score with independent and moderate voters next fall. President Bush left office with a very poor approval rating. President Obama has a mediocre approval rating. The Iraq War doesn’t look good in retrospect. Obamacare isn’t popular. The national debt is $19 billion, headed for $20 billion by next year. 75% of that debt was accumulated during the last two presidencies.
Middle class voters have suffered and or stagnated for the past fifteen years. While it’s very unlikely Sanders-style socialism is the winning approach, what will work with the public is open to question.
The only certainty is Hillary carries a lot of baggage with her. This luggage has three types:
Reluctance to take a stand on controversial issues. Most noticeable is Clinton punting on the Keystone XL pipeline, which has stalled for several years. With unions in favor of high-paying jobs and environmentalists anti-oil/anti-pipeline, she’s damned either way. Usually, a candidate would still make a decision, particularly if they were well versed in the details.
Ethical questions. Will spare you the list, but whether someone still remembers the fun of the Clinton administration scandals or is just a little shaky on who might have contributed to the Clinton Foundation while Hillary was Secretary of State, there are questions.
Term as Secretary of State. Hillary is unusual among presidential candidates in that she was considered a serious, top-tier candidate before holding arguably the most important cabinet office. William Howard Taft was elected in 1908 as Teddy Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor, after serving as Secretary of War. That’s the most recent comparison.
Generally speaking, the people who hold important cabinet positions and the people who are presidential nominees are different people. If Obama were more popular, or his foreign policy was looking more effective, as it did to many in 2012, this would not weigh as heavily.
However, the past three years have not been kind to the Obama foreign policy legacy, and Hillary’s reluctance to say too much about the Iran deal (see point #1), among other foreign policy/defense items, puts her in the position of having her effectiveness defined for her, especially with the right critic representing Republicans.
The investigation into Hillary’s use of her home server for sensitive/classified emails, combines problem #2 and problem #3.
Clinton would like to portray herself as a strong leader with foreign relations and management experience who has good judgment and will get the job done.
Thursday’s debates helped show why Fiorina is likely correct that she is the best advocate to tear down this perception, and focus the attention of voters on the pile of Samsonite.
While female voters will not necessarily flock to Fiorina just because she’s a woman, it is easier for a woman to criticize the job performance and ethics of another woman. It’s particularly easier if the person doing the criticizing is credibly able to claim she is in fact what Hillary claims she is.
This is why the debate performance connected so well. Not only was Fiorina very ready to go after Hillary, more than any of the 16 other contestants, but in doing so, she made her case as a better, conservative version of what Clinton’s fans think she is.
The normal problem with an outsider, non-politician candidate is lack of experience. While it’s attractive for frustrated voters to look toward those who aren’t accountable for the current malaise, how do you know the rookie is up to the challenge?
Fiorina makes a very compelling argument. Unlike other business leader presidential candidates, Carly ran a truly multinational company, one that was among the 50 largest in the world during her tenure.
Ross Perot was an entrepreneur, creating EDS after leaving his sales job at IBM. This is absolutely nothing to sneeze at, most of us do not create businesses that GM pays billions of dollars for. Perot and GM did not get along, and the Texan hit the road after the acquisition. Future results indicated Perot was right, and GM wrong, but he was unable to coexist with the corporate bureaucracy.
American presidents do have to deal with a large, entrenched bureaucracy. Inertia is an issue. The founding fathers created a start-up government, but that entity is now (for better or probably worse) mature. This is much closer to the situation Fiorina found herself in at HP, as the original Silicon Valley start-up was dealing awkwardly with middle age, than Perot’s situation, or that of Trump.
The Donald has notable successes to his record, but he also holds various properties as separate entities with different investors and creditors. Many of these properties operate virtually autonomously. Again, Trump owns 16 high profile golf courses, where many of us are fortunate to have golfed 16 different places, but it’s not the same thing as managing the country, where each decision impacts something else.
Herman Cain ran a 4th-rate pizza chain. Steve Forbes was a publisher, who inherited Forbes Magazine from his father Malcolm. None of the previous business leader presidential aspirants had as much relevant experience as Fiorina. The closest was Willkie, who’s utility company was directly impacted by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a major New Deal program that put the government in competition with private utilities and turned him in to a politician.
In the 21st century, large company CEOs often meet with foreign leaders, so Fiorina has travelled more extensively and had more contact with these leaders than any president since George H.W. Bush. Neither Clinton, George W. Bush, or Obama, had Fiorina’s international experience.
As the face of a large public company, Fiorina also had a lesson in accountability to the public. With state and local politics increasingly ignored by the general public, the CEO of a company traded by major mutual funds, pension funds and regularly discussed on CNBC has more scrutiny than the average senator or governor.
If we accept Fiorina might be the best anti-Hillary advocate and determine she’s qualified, even without experience holding office, there’s still the party unification matter.
It’s natural for a party to have different factions. It’s natural for establishment members to want a more moderate candidate who is supposedly more acceptable to the general election audience. It’s understandable that strong conservatives might disagree and think the benefit of winning an election isn’t worth selling out, especially after winning control of congress seems semi-useless at the moment.
You can win a nomination without unifying the party, but it’s much easier to win an election if you have. It’s possible Fiorina would have an easier time pulling everyone together than almost any other candidate.
Establishment Republicans would like the chance to run a woman against Hillary and take comfort in Carly’s big company CEO experience. Especially if/when Fiorina shows the first debate wasn’t a fluke, the idea of sending her into a fall election might not be that scary. She certainly would have less risk than Trump (not at all viable) or Cruz.
More relevantly, there’s a scenario where Fiorina seems safer than Scott Walker. For now, Walker is still positioned as the strong conservative the pros can sign off on. With Republican candidates creating fall 2016 anti-women 30-second ad bites every couple of days, Walker’s debate answer about opposing abortion when the mother’s life is in danger could create problems.
If strong conservatives and Tea Party Republicans cannot get on board with Jeb or Kasich (quite possible) and Rubio is not ready yet (less likely) or can’t pull conservatives along (semi doubtful), Fiorina could stand as the only choice acceptable to all/most wings of the party.
Fiorina is in line with the center of the Republican Party on virtually everything. If moderates lose the argument that a seemingly less conservative candidate is necessary for electability, Carly could wind up least offensive to all.
It is still very early, and other candidates are still in line in front of her, but Fiorina is the most credible non-elected official or wartime general to run for the presidency in at least 75 years. Even in a strong and deep field, she’s still a legit contender.
Over the next couple of months, the media will build her up and then attempt to tear her down at least somewhat. If she succeeds in building her polling results and profile, others will gun for her. If Fiorina’s appearance with Chris Matthews on MSNBC the other day is any indication, she’ll be ready.
This isn’t Michele Bachmann, it’s not Sarah Palin. Fiorina is used to difficult questions from New York City. She ran against liberal favorite Barbara Boxer in California, not exactly the easiest task. While Fiorina lost, her margin was closer than any of the last several Republican presidential candidates managed in the Golden State.
If she runs as well in California in 2016 as she did in 2010, and you make the normal adjustment to national voting numbers (even accounting for her previous race being in an off/non-presidential year), Fiorina would win. This does not mean you should expect Carly would easily win a general election, but her 2010 Senate loss is not a disqualifier or reason to think she could not compete.
Time will tell.