It’s common for successful businesspeople to enter politics. The weird thing about Carly Fiorina, now Ted Cruz’s apparent pick for the vice presidency, is that she was not a very successful businessperson.
Fiorina managed to get a job running one of the largest companies in America, but she was not especially good at that job. The debate over her tenure at Hewlett-Packard, which ended with her firing in 2005, is roughly this: Was she a terrible CEO, or was she merely an average CEO leading a mature company with weakening fundamentals?
You can argue about whether Hewlett-Packard would have done much better under other leadership — it seems to me a less grandiose CEO might have avoided the value-destroying acquisition of Compaq — but you cannot argue her tenure was a demonstration of excellence.
Given that track record, why should Fiorina become a powerful elected official? It’s not obvious to me, and given the results of the 2010 California Senate race and this year’s Republican presidential primaries, it’s apparently not obvious to voters either.
The pairing with Cruz is especially odd, because Cruz and Fiorina have two of the most repellent personalities in this year’s presidential field — a field that, you will recall, included Republican Rick Santorum and Democrat Jim Webb.
Plus there is the presumptuousness of announcing a running mate when your explicit strategy is to make up your delegate deficit by negotiating for support at the convention. If Cruz is going to try to convince delegates pledged to somebody else to make him the nominee, shouldn’t one of the topics for negotiation be who goes on the ticket with him?
I gather Cruz’s theory is that Fiorina will be effective on attack, against Trump now and against the Democratic nominee later. Conservatives have, at various times, been enamoured with Fiorina’s skill in attacking Barbara Boxer (her 2010 opponent), Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Fiorina was the only candidate to get through a direct debate confrontation with Trump and be judged a clear winner by the media.
But Fiorina has zero electoral victories to show for her fighting skills. And I think that’s mostly because her attacks, pithy and harsh though they can be, don’t align with voters’ driving concerns.
In California in 2010, attacking Barbara Boxer’s concern about climate change as “worrying about the weather” was not an effective electoral strategy. In the current campaign, we have learned that many Republican-primary voters were not especially bothered when Fiorina pointed out that Trump is an inconsistent conservative and a sexist. And there is no evidence that, in a general election, slamming Hillary Clinton over Benghazi (which Fiorina would surely do with zeal) will move swing voters.
The Fiorina choice represents wishful thinking. Cruz and his backers wish what Republican voters cared about was picking Mr. Conservative, and they wish Fiorina’s forceful voice will help those voters finally realise Trump is a moderate squish.
Wishful thinking can be a powerful motivator, in politics and in business, especially when it’s clear your business model is running out of gas.
The alternative for Cruz — to read the writing on the wall and realise Donald Trump is on his way to clinching the nomination — is unappealing. The alternative at Hewlett-Packard — to admit the printer business was mature and the personal-computer business was unprofitable and therefore the company needed to shrink — was similarly unappealing.
If you face inevitable decline, a desperate merger can look like your best option. Fiorina should just hope this only ends up being the second-most disastrous merger of her career.
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