Girl Power?

This Is Carly, Hear Her Roar

Carly Fiorina says if she runs for president, she’ll take identity politics away from Hillary Clinton.

04.22.15 9:15 AM ET

It was hard to tell who was more taken aback, former CEO Carly Fiorina, or the reporters assembled to question her, when one of them prefaced his question with the comment, “I’ve never met a presidential candidate who had fingernail polish on.” Without missing a beat, Fiorina said, “Well, there’s always a first.”

The remark, retro as it was, served to elicit an interesting response as Fiorina mused about what it would be like if Hillary Clinton were to face a female nominee.

Fiorina has presented herself as the only person in the current GOP field who won’t really have to worry about inadvertently launching a war on women and the lone foil to Clinton’s “first woman president” claim.

“She wouldn’t be able to play the gender card,” Fiorina said. Clinton would have to run on her track record, “not identity politics.”

Yet, Fiorina’s public remarks are often peppered with identity politics. Fiorina has not officially declared her candidacy, but as the lone woman in the GOP’s large contingent of male contenders, she is unabashed about the virtues a woman brings.

“Get women involved in any problem, the problem gets better,” she said at one point during her breakfast meeting with reporters last week, sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor in Washington. “The data is clear.”

During a speech in New Hampshire last weekend, Fiorina responded to a Dallas city councilwoman’s recent comment that a woman shouldn’t be president because of her hormones.

“Not that we have seen a man’s judgment clouded by hormones, including in the Oval Office,” she said, a clear reference to a different Clinton.

Even when describing her personal story, Fiorina talks about how she started as a secretary and through an “act of generosity” by two men who noticed she could do more than type and file, her life was able to take on a new trajectory. 

She cited her work with major charitable organizations that have put her in touch with people from all walks of life.

“Policy is important, but I also think empathy is important,” she said. “People understanding where you come from, what your story is, is important to any leadership role.”

Peppered with a series of questions about her presidential bona fides, she cited consulting gigs with the State Department on IT systems, and with the CIA on how to solve its recruiting problems. “I’m not a neophyte in government,” she said, “but I’m not a professional politician.”

(It should be noted that she’s not a professional politician only because she lost her Senate race to Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) in 2010.)

“People who have been in politics all their lives are somewhat disconnected from the rest of us,” she said, a not so veiled slap at Clinton. Of all the GOP candidates, Fiorina has chosen to zero in the most on Clinton. Asked about Clinton’s populist-toned rhetoric about exorbitant CEO pay, Fiorina said dismissively that Clinton is “channeling the populist fervor of Elizabeth Warren,” that her policies reflect the “selective outrage of the left” because she doesn’t protest the earnings of Hollywood celebrities or sports figures.

She refused to take the bait on criticizing Clinton’s soft launch video announcement, saying that voters will want to know about Benghazi and Clinton’s email server, and of course her policies.

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“That’s what they’re going to care about, not how her rollout went.”

Fiorina’s talking points regularly include her insistence that as a former CEO she understands how the world economy works, and that she not only had photo ops with world leaders. “I made deals with world leaders.”

Challenging Clinton on foreign policy is central to Fiorina’s strategy, and likely a first among women jockeying for a position on their party’s presidential ticket.

“Whether the world is more or less dangerous has a lot to do with U.S. policies and leadership,” she said, calling the world “more dangerous today” after Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama.

Fiorina’s rhetoric about sitting across the table from Russian President Putin and finding him “very charming, actually,” is unfortunately too reminiscent of Sarah Palin’s declaration that she could see Russia from her window, an assertion that was panned on Saturday Night Live.

“He has an ambition for power that is pretty overwhelming,” she said, and nothing will stop him “unless he believes there is a force on the other side that will stop him.”

What would she do? She would “stand up and arm Ukraine” and she would have more aggressive military exercises in the Baltic States “sending a very clear message to Vladimir Putin that ‘Maybe I’m not going to get away with this.’”

A woman running for president and therefore the position of commander in chief is still new enough in our political process that Fiorina is following the textbook example of showing toughness.

There’s no daylight between her and her male competitors on the Republican side—with the lone exception of Rand Paul—when it comes to flexing military power.

Clinton has been in the public eye long enough to prove her toughness. Now she’s showing her vulnerable feminine side.

It’s hard to tell who’s playing identity politics, or who’s just trying to win.