In the rough and tumble Republican nomination battle, a key dynamic has emerged. The primary electorate, particularly the activist base, is hungry for a political outsider, someone it hopes can shake up the status quo in Washington. It attaches momentum to unconventional candidates who can make their cases most effectively under the glare of the media spotlight. This dynamic will persist until the last man (or woman) is standing.
And for this reason, Carly Fiorina is the Great GOP Hope.
Like current front-runners Donald Trump and Ben Carson, Fiorina has never been elected to office or otherwise served in a government job. Similarly, she has found a way to stir the base with crisp, memorable sound-bites on the stump. Unlike the other two outsider candidates, however, Fiorina has demonstrated policy depth and has confidently articulated her positions with intelligence and clarity. She works hard and has thought seriously about the issues. Her preparation shows.
Fiorina’s performance during and after the first two candidate debates has catapulted her from relative obscurity to the top tier of contenders. The RealClearPolitics average of national polls over the last two weeks now has her ranked third, just after Trump and Carson.
Begrudging commentators have dismissed Fiorina’s rise as another infatuation with the latest shiny object, predicting her lack of political experience and campaign resources will cause her to collapse like 2012 flavors-of-the-month (such as Herman Cain).
Here’s why Fiorina is different.
First of all, she packs a rhetorical punch. She doesn’t just parrot the requisite talking points for a receptive audience. She brings the house down with razor-sharp attack lines which address the point at hand even as they paint a broader vision for conservative governance.
For example, here’s how Fiorina tackled the thorny issue of Iran during the CNN debate:
You haven’t heard a plan about Iran from any politician up here. Here is my plan. On day one I will make two phone calls, the first to my good friend to Bibi Netanyahu to reassure him that we will stand with the state of Israel. The second to the Supreme Leader to tell him that unless and until he opens every military and every nuclear facility to real anytime, anywhere inspections by our people, not his, we the United States of America will make it as difficult as possible to move money around the global financial system. We can do that. We don’t need anyone’s cooperation to do it. And every ally and adversary we have in the world will know that the United States of America is back in the leadership business, which is how we must stand with allies.
And then on the funding of Planned Parenthood:
I dare, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. 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. This is about the character of our nation, and if we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us.
Even liberals — especially liberal women, who feel compelled to confront her policy positions, are at great pains to resist the appeal of her powerful stage presence.
Secondly, Fiorina promotes conservative principles with more than empty platitudes. Whether it’s reasserting American strength abroad, defending the sanctity of life, or embracing a pro-growth economic policy, she makes her point and backs it up with specific ideas. A critic might not agree with her conclusions but he would be hard pressed to refute her arguments on the spot, while millions of viewers were tuning in.
At the same time, Fiorina doesn’t throw out base-pleasing proclamations that would paint her into a corner. Ted Cruz might also be a good debater, but unlike Fiorina, he has alienated the majority of the electorate, burning bridges with personal attacks and futile parliamentary maneuvers, which do little other than burnish his image with the hard-right.
Lastly, Fiorina readily dodges the bean-balls that typically trip up GOP candidates. As an accomplished female executive, wife, stepmother, and breast cancer survivor, she gives no quarter the tiresome “war on women” diatribes coming from the politically correct feminist left. As a wealthy person, she makes no apologies for her success, which she earned through individual labor and merit, something Democratic front-runner Hilary Clinton can scarcely claim.
As could be expected, the projectiles of critics have flown with Fiorina’s ascent in the polls. Her controversial tenure as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard featured deal-making and boardroom drama, but little definitive success. She outsourced jobs and cut thousands of employees from the payroll. And when the board finally took her job away, she exited with a rich pay package. She hasn’t been hired by another big company since.
Fiorina has her counterpoints to all of these knocks, and she seems well-prepared to push back against the kind of attacks which doomed her 2010 campaign for Senate in California. Given the well-calibrated but fearless response to shots fired by Donald Trump, it’s easy to imagine her dispensing with Democratic critiques of her business record and pivoting quickly to the substance of the 2016 campaign.
Compared to Clinton, Fiorina is an icon of personal accountability and achievement. She may have ruffled feathers climbing the corporate ladder, but she did it on her own. Compared to most of her Republican rivals (excepting possibly Cruz and Marco Rubio), she speaks more clearly, more confidently, and more consistently on the stump and on the screen. Compared to the other front-runners, she is the most presidential.
Money can’t buy these qualities and it won’t. Just look at the middling Jeb Bush campaign. But money will help a candidate compete if she otherwise has the right stuff. That’s why I’m hoping big dollars start to flow her way.