Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign has been built on confrontational moments. With impregnable self-confidence and a fearless intensity, she has out-Trumped Donald Trump and landed the most telling and quotable blows on Hillary Clinton.
In such a giant field of candidates what matters most is the ability to grab the spotlight. The era of YouTube and FaceTime video links has further magnified the power of a candidate who can create significant moments. Fiorina is great at it, perfectly suited to this environment.
She can go on MSNBC or some other outlet and bludgeon a host with a barrage of forcefully delivered bullet points, which then goes viral. When challenged on the accuracy or fairness of her assertions, she blasts straight through.
Clinton and Fiorina appeared back to back on “Meet the Press” recently. Clinton was challenged on the email issue and tried affably to defend her conduct. Fiorina was challenged on the existence of a Planned Parenthood video she claims to have seen.
In contrast to Clinton, Fiorina simply refused to adopt a defensive posture. She ignored the challenges and just hit Planned Parenthood harder. The factual issue sort of got lost in her torrent. She was stylistically indomitable even if she didn’t address the substance of the critique.
She is in tune with an electorate that is disgusted with the political class. In her stump speech, she tells story after story in which she walks into this or that lion’s den and takes on the establishment. Some of her stories involve taking on the male establishment in corporate America. Others involve taking on the inside-the-Beltway crowd where she lives.
And yet for all her feisty outsider bravado if you actually look at her views on substance and her behavior in the past, she is a completely conventional Republican. She was a strong supporter of John McCain and Mitt Romney, the last two nominees. A lot of her language is the normal, vague corporate-speak about “leadership,” “unlocking potential,” and understanding the economy.
On policy grounds, her views are orthodox. She doesn’t want to move the party to the left or right, or in a more populist, libertarian or moderate direction. Her core argument on the stump is that government has gotten too big and is crushing business, which is hardly an innovative message in a Republican primary.
On issues where her views once contradicted the current fashion, like No Child Left Behind, and a path to citizenship for immigrants, she has moved to be where Republican voters now are. She is where the consumers want her to be.
In short, stylistically she is a renegade outsider, but substantively she’s completely establishmentarian. Another way to say it is that her campaign is brilliantly creative in its marketing arm, but unimaginative when it comes to product development.
And this is where her business background comes into view. When she ran Hewlett-Packard the core critique against her was that she was really good at marketing but not good at tech or operations.
Different people have very different takes on her performance at HP, but when you talk to close observers and read some of the voluminous literature on her tenure, it’s hard to come away feeling sanguine. Most tellingly, she made the classic marketer’s error, letting her promises get far out in front of reality. As my New York Times colleague Joseph Nocera pointed out, under her, HP failed to meet its revenue and profit projections nine times. One time it missed its earnings projections by a gigantic 23 percent.
The positive theory of her campaign is that she’s perfectly suited for a Republican electorate that wants to vent its outrage at the political class and the timid party leadership, but which doesn’t really believe in any alternative direction. She gives the Republican establishment rebellious fire, but is actually one of them.
The more likely scenario is that Fiorina fades over the next few months. In this race, there’s been a huge gap between the campaigners, like Trump, Carson and Fiorina, and the governors – those with actual experience in government.
In this early phase, the voters are indulging in a little free outrage, enjoying the campaigners. But history teaches that parties invariably nominate government officials. Sooner or later, voters want a candidate rooted in something more than a marketing strategy. They want someone authentically connected to middle-class concerns and with strategies for their specific challenges, like wage stagnation.
Opposing the political class is not an agenda. Unless Fiorina can become a lot more creative and sympathetically connected to working-class voters, she'll fall to an opponent who will turn to her in debate and ask, “Where’s the beef?”
David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times.