Carly Fiorina can be dismissed as a presidential candidate rather easily.
She lost her only bid at elective office in California. She was asked to lead Hewlett-Packard, presided over a difficult downsizing, and was sent away. In other words, no political experience, and a record in private industry that doesn't boast a string of successes and money avalanches a la Mitt Romney. There's also a fear that private-sector candidates aren't just untested in public office, but also under-vetted. Remember Herman Cain?
And yet Fiorina is consistently the freshest representative of Republican and conservative views on the campaign hustings. If she doesn't succeed in becoming the nominee, whoever does should borrow liberally from her rhetorical playbook.
Instead of merely gesturing in the direction of "economic growth" or "prosperity," as most conservative candidates are wont to do, Fiorina makes a political argument. It runs this way: Federal regulations are written by a political class of lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians for the benefit of well-connected corporate interests. Big business and big government are two sides of the same corrupt deal.
The "dirty little secret," she has said, "of ObamaCare or Dodd-Frank or all of these other huge complicated pieces of regulation or legislation, is that they don't get written on their own... They get written in part by lobbyists for big companies who want to understand that the rules are going to work for them."
This manages to be much more accurate than the typical right-wing complaints of creeping socialism. It is also an implicit argument that she is free of such shenanigans as a non-career politician. Even on the stump in Iowa, Fiorina is willing to press this line of argument, saying that a tacit "Too Big To Fail" guarantee reduced 10 enormous banks to five gargantuan ones, even as small, community banks that make loans to small businesses begin to shrink under the weight of regulatory compliance and government burden.
Fiorina is also a committed social conservative, who deftly puts her finger on the pain-points for Democratic pols. She likes to point out how "extreme" the Democratic position is on abortion by praising legislation that would ban the practice after five months gestation.
This is smart as a matter of politics. It puts her squarely in the ever-more-successful incrementalist approach to pro-life politics. It's also smart as a matter of media management. Simply put, it is virtually impossible to engage in a deep philosophical debate about when life begins or what reproductive technologies are moral in television segments that are built for quick sound bites.
She defended Indiana's version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. She supported Proposition 8 in California, which banned same-sex marriage in 2008. But she is not going to compete with Rick Santorum or other social-cons in their contest to be the staunchest opponent of liberals. Unlike Mike Huckabee, she isn't willing to throw over two centuries of American legal precedent to defend her view of marriage.
Her rhetorical attacks on Hillary Clinton are also deft. "Unlike Mrs. Clinton, I know that flying is an activity, not an accomplishment," she says, a dig at Clinton's much touted travels around the world. Fiorina rightly detects that Clinton's bragging is a weak substitute for her lack of substantive achievements as secretary of state.
Fiorina can be lashing when talking about Clinton's tweets in support of women's rights, even as her foundation accepts money from countries with terrible records on women's rights. And Fiorina's willingness to put herself out there in interviews with Seth Meyers, Katie Couric, and The Today Show are also a nice contrast to the Clintonian political style of hunkering down with an army of paid experts.
Fiorina has a very tough mountain to climb in the Republican nominating contest. She has to prove she's not just another disposable vanity candidate in an enormous pile of wannabe contenders and conservative-movement shakedown artists. Then she has to compete with experienced governors and senators, who've hardened themselves after years of taking blows from their opponents.
But what does it say about all of them, that she has delivered the best lines of the campaign so far?