Carly Fiorina, profile: The Republicans' card to trump Hillary Clinton in White House race?

The GOP’s flavour of the month is starting to look like a White House contender. But her Wall Street past may yet foil her

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The Independent Online

So Bill Clinton’s a shoo-in to be the first First Gentleman of the United States? Not so fast. Keep an eye on one Frank Fiorina.

While Hillary’s mantle of inevitability is fraying, in the crowded Republican 2016 White House race Frank’s spouse is the sensation of the moment. Carly Fiorina for president? The odds are still heavily stacked against her – but suddenly the notion makes a kind of sense.

How different from a couple of months ago. To be sure, people knew who Carly was: the former boss of the computer giant Hewlett-Packard; the first woman to lead a Fortune Top 20 company and who later ran (unsuccessfully) for one of California’s two Senate seats; and, as US politics watchers would note, a former adviser to John McCain in his losing presidential run of 2008. But a serious challenger for the White House in her own right, having never even held elected office?

Fiorina declared her candidacy in May, only to bump along near the bottom of the polls, managing no better than a place on the undercard in the first Republican debate on 6 August. A standout performance, however, earned her promotion to the main event at the second debate last week.

Sketch of Carly Fiorina by Lauren Crow

There, too, she was deemed the clear winner, helped by her deadpan, withering put-down of Donald Trump, rendering that preening self-promoter for once flustered and unsure of himself. A CNN poll the next day put her in second place behind Trump, leading some to believe that after the fiasco of McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, the Republicans might have found their own Hillary Clinton, a champion who would improve the party’s dismal standing among women while remaining true to conservative principles. And the two have some similarities.


Of course, their political views are miles apart – particularly on women’s issues, from abortion to federally paid maternity leave. Clinton is resolutely pro-choice, while Fiorina opposes abortion in almost every circumstance: witness her ferocious (many would say mendacious) attacks on Planned Parenthood and the allegations of harvesting of organs from aborted foetuses. Clinton calls for curbs on Wall Street, and supports action to fight climate change, but Fiorina is a conservative true believer on economic matters, who favours deregulation and believes action to counter global warming is futile. She is also a hardliner on immigration reform: beef up the borders and no path to citizenship for illegal residents.

But Clinton and Fiorina have made it to the top of male-dominated fields. Both are crisply articulate and radiate competence. Indeed, what distinguished Fiorina at the second debate was not her conservatism – de rigueur, if she is to appeal to Republican primary voters – but her air of discipline and competence. No matter her tendency to play fast and loose with the facts (she has been described as a “pathological spin artist” – but then again, what candidate isn’t?) – she sounded as if she really knew her stuff.

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina signs an autograph

And one might argue, with her background, so she should. One of Fiorina’s economies with the truth is her depiction of her career as an “only in America” story: the humble secretary who by dint of her own abilities reached the summit of one of the world’s leading tech companies. None can doubt that she has the talent, but her background was anything but deprived.

The father of the woman who, in 1954, started life as Cara Carleton Sneed, was a federal appeals judge and, briefly, deputy attorney general in the Nixon administration. The young girl spent a year at Channing School in Highgate, north London, an experience she later called “great fun, like being in a movie”, before continuing her blue-chip education at Stanford and later MIT. At Stanford, she met her first husband Todd Bartlem. The couple broke up after a few years and Bartlem is still bitter about the experience. “In the clown car that is the Republican Party,” he told Bloomberg recently, “she’s the ultimate clown.”

Fiorina was indeed once a receptionist at an estate agents – but only as a fill-in job before teaching English in Italy for a year. Her business career proper began in 1980 when she joined AT&T as a management trainee. By the age of 40, she was heading the group’s North American operations, before becoming the head of Lucent Technologies, which flourished mightily under her leadership.

At AT&T she met Frank Fiorina, then a more senior executive who told her on their third date that before long she’d be running the company. His timing might have been a bit off, and he got the wrong company. But in 1999, her reputation at its zenith after Lucent, she was named the new chief executive of Hewlett-Packard. Frank gave up his own career to further hers – his permit to carry a concealed weapon allowing him to act as her armed bodyguard. Carly led HP until she was forced out in February 2005.

And therein lies her biggest problem. In presidential politics, with success automatically comes scrutiny, and her record at the helm of HP deserves plenty. Yes, she made Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2004 and was named 10th on the Forbes list of the world’s 100 most powerful women. But while she was in charge, the company’s stock price dropped more than 50 per cent – far more steeply than those of its competitors. Net earnings fell and 30,000 workers were fired, many of them already alienated by her demanding and self-centred management style. The crowning error was a misconceived merger with Compaq, then America’s second largest PC manufacturer. By 2005, a dysfunctional HP board succeeded in agreeing on one thing: Fiorina should go. When she left (with a $21m severance package) HP’s share price jumped 7 per cent.

By now, politics was beckoning. In 2006, she published a best-selling memoir, Tough Choices, before signing up with the McCain campaign, where she was praised for giving her all until the very end despite the virtual certainty of defeat. The elected office problem remained, however. Fiorina decided to remedy the omission by challenging for the California Senate seat held by the liberal Democrat Barbara Boxer.

Despite being diagnosed with breast cancer, and losing her hair from chemotherapy, she won a three-person Republican primary. Next up to fight was Boxer herself – considered vulnerable in 2010, the year of the Tea Party. In the event, Fiorina was soundly beaten. Boxer savaged her tenure at HP, pointing to the layoffs and the $21m golden parachute: “We don’t want those Wall Street values here.”

That argument, sure to be raised by a Democratic opponent in the 2016 general election, will resonate even more strongly amid the current resentment at America’s ever-widening inequality, and the flow of wealth towards the 1 per cent.

Businesspeople have rarely been winners in US politics. Whatever Fiorina’s claim that she has the skills required for the White House, at the moment voters are up in arms against politics-as-usual. The standard wisdom is that Fiorina has peaked too early, that Republicans voters will find another flavour of the month.

Perhaps they will, but Fiorina has prepared long for this moment. She’s done her homework and she oozes self-belief. Maybe the man with the permit to carry will end up as First Gentleman after all.

Carly Fiorina: A life in brief

Born: 6 September 1954, Austin, Texas.

Family: Daughter of artist Madelon Montross and Joseph Sneed, law academic and judge. Married to Frank Fiorina.

Education: Schools in US, London and Ghana. Philosophy and medieval history BA from Stanford University.

Career: Trainee at AT&T, 1980; led spin-off company Lucent in 1995. Hewlett-Packard chief executive, 1999, forced out in 2004. Joined John McCain’s presidential campaign, 2008. Declared as Republican candidate 2015.