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US Presidential Politics – not just for the boys anymore?

The American presidential campaign is still in its early days for 2016 but already the role of women in this campaign is very different than in all previous elections. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look through the optic of Carly Fiorina and Elizabeth Warren.

Americans are still very much in midst of the silly season of American presidential politics. Beginning with Memorial Day (this year on 25 May), this is the period where much is said, many pontificate, a growing number of people insist they should be considered for the top political job, but no one has yet cast a single vote in a single primary election, let alone a national general one.

Moreover, in late May, universities and schools are letting out for the looming summer vacation (and those graduation rituals), many families are planning their family vacations, and business routines begin to slow down just a bit in response to the season. It is not quite like what happens in France in August, in Japan during Golden Week or the New Year’s break, or South Africa during “the festive season”, but there is already a definite feeling of greater ease and informality. People are having what is probably their first real barbeque (or braai for South Africans) and for most of Americans, presidential politics is still a rather distant concern.

And yet, prospective and announced contenders for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination are practically falling out of the trees, showing up at the kinds of events where politics addicts – and, in particular, conservative activists – are attending what are sometimes called “beauty contests”. And among Democrats, one candidate – Hillary Clinton – has been effectively trying to position herself as “the chosen one”, even as she carefully engages in her “listening tour” to soften that coronation aspect to her effort to gain her party’s nomination.

One of the contenders for the GOP nomination is none other than Carly Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett-Packard and a failed candidate for the Senate from California back in 2010. Given Hillary Clinton’s prominence among Democrats, as well as the frequent mentions of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and despite her insistence she is not running for the presidency, one of the big stories for this coming election will be the impact of gender – and, specifically, the likelihood at least one candidate for president or vice president from one or both major parties will be female, this time around. (Yes, Sarah Palin was John McCain’s running mate back in 2008 but no one really wants to back to that experience as a way of carrying out the party’s political future.)

This is not the first time a woman has attempted to gain a nomination for the presidency – let alone the office itself. Hillary Clinton, most recently, in 2008 battled it out with Barack Obama among the Democrats before finally conceding the nomination to him. Reaching back further, Elizabeth Dole, then a Republican senator from North Carolina, had unsuccessfully tried her hand at gaining her party’s nomination in 2000, and Democratic congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (an African American with deep roots in the union movement) from New York City was nominated at the 1968 convention.

But Chisholm’s nomination was largely as a protest over elements of the Democratic Party platform. And, of course, psychologist and community organiser Lenora Fulani has run for the presidency several times and she was the first African American to have her name appear on the ballot for voters to select in all fifty states of the country. She actually collected more votes than any other woman in American history until 2012, when Jill Stein of the Green Party bested Fulani on that score. Of course none of these individuals won the presidency, but this time around there is clearly a real chance some history will be written on that score in 2016.

And so, what about Carly Fiorina? In reporting about the “beauty pageant” speech-giving at this month’s Iowa Republicans’ Lincoln Day dinner, The New York Times, reporting on that dinner, noted, “After 11 Republican presidential contenders spoke to a huge gathering of Iowa party activists at the Lincoln Day Dinner this month, they moved to hospitality suites to greet people one on one. Jeb Bush’s suite looked sparse, with a handful of visitors asking the former Florida governor for a photo. Rick Santorum said hello to a scattering of old supporters. But the line to meet one candidate, Carly Fiorina, a former Silicon Valley executive whose name recognition is negligible among voters, snaked down the hallway. For more than an hour, Iowans filed into the suite for their chance to meet Ms. Fiorina.

“Ms. Fiorina, a former chief executive at Hewlett-Packard with a flair for biting one-liners, had just delivered a speech that included references to God and a joke about former President Bill Clinton’s hormones. When a timekeeper cut off her microphone, indicating that she had used up her allotted 10 minutes, the audience broke out in catcalls and groans. The crowd wanted more Carly. ‘It was the most exciting speech all night,’ said Cait Suttie, 27, who waited to meet Ms. Fiorina and now wants to volunteer with her campaign.”

Given her paucity of political experience to be judged on, Fiorina’s business past should presumably be the key measure of her competence, rather than just her ability to rev up a crowd with some biting one-liners about Bill and Hillary Clinton, or the current incumbent in the White House. But this is where the awkward fact of her ugly ousting from Hewlett-Packard comes in. And then there was her propensity for expensive luxuries like private air flights to and from business meetings to give her opponents a chance to paint her as one of the plutocrats.

As the Washington Post reported, “In her quest for the Republican presidential nomination, former tech CEO Carly Fiorina boasts about her experience running Silicon Valley computer-maker Hewlett-Packard as evidence that she’s ‘a problem solver, with a track record to prove it.’ What her campaign literature doesn’t highlight is that she was fired from that job in 2005, after a stormy tenure. Fiorina has blamed her ouster on a sudden showdown with HP directors, but most of her six years as CEO were contentious. She cut more than 30,000 jobs and undertook a massive merger with rival Compaq, which sparked a messy battle with the families of HP’s founders. The company missed some key financial targets and, from her hiring to her firing, its stock price fell more than 50 percent.”

To be fair to Fiorina, it should be recalled she was hired on as an outsider who was to bring a mandate for change – but change can make enemies as it breaks rice bowls. While some analysts say her decision to buy Compaq, another computer company, put HP back in the game, it is also true that it took her successor to make the deal work out and, according to the Post, “she alienated employees, influential shareholders and her own board, which ultimately hired someone else to make the Compaq deal work. ‘The day she was fired, the market responded and HP’s stock shot up 7 percent,’ said Jason Burnett, a grandson of co-founder David Packard. ‘That’s a clear signal.’ ” No doubt her opponents already have a nice fat folder on all of this.

But, despite her evident lack of political experience or public management of a major government entity (and that problematic reputation as a corporate leader), Fiorina has clearly connected with a growing share of the conservative Republican activist class – the group all serious candidates must ultimately draw upon to carry out their actual ground campaign for the nomination.

For Fiorina, however, the biggest challenge in the early stages will be how she carries herself in the early Republican candidate debates, the first of which takes place in early August. How well she skewers other challengers (in the midst of carrying further her attacks on Hillary Clinton) without making enemies within the party, will be crucial for her for the rest of the race.

In describing her campaign style, The Washington Post reported, “Ms. Fiorina says she writes all of her own remarks, including some choice jabs at the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton. ‘Flying is not an accomplishment, it’s an activity,’ she likes to say, knocking Mrs. Clinton’s boast that she travelled 956,733 miles as secretary of state. In her announcement video, Ms. Fiorina watched — and critiqued — Mrs. Clinton’s own announcement video. She is prepared with answers on issues from the Islamic State to the California drought (which she has blamed on ‘overzealous liberal environmentalists’) and distils them into one-liners that play to the party’s base.

“But at times, Ms. Fiorina, 60, also speaks in deeply personal terms about her faith, her struggles to conceive a child, her survival of breast cancer and the death of a stepdaughter, experiences that seem to resonate with a heavily evangelical party base. ‘It was my husband Frank’s and my personal relationship with Jesus Christ that saved us from a desperate sadness,’ she has said.”

But, with her national popularity still barely breaking 2% support levels among Republicans nationally according to the polls, she would seem to have a long way to go to even enter the top half dozen candidates. In fact, she actually has to break through to at least the top ten so as to be eligible for the first candidates’ debate hosted by Fox News TV in August. But, if her popularity among the party’s rank and file continues to grow the way it seems to have done in Iowa, she should at least reach that threshold. Then it is a whole new ball game once the first debate happens.

But maybe her real goal is to be the Republicans’ vice presidential candidate. After all, they have already been there once with Sarah Palin, a tough talking, sound-bite dispensing attack dog if there ever was one in American politics. This next time around, if the party’s eventual candidate takes the plunge and picks Fiorina as his running mate from among a crowded field of politicians who did not succeed in gaining the top spot, at least Republicans would have the benefit of knowing their vice presidential candidate is smart, savvy and quick off the mark with the spirited one-liner, and she understands the language of economics, even if she has virtually no successful political track record or experience she can point to.

Meanwhile, over with the Democrats, Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts seems to be carrying out the kind of actions that are usually confused with being a candidate – but without actually being one. In fact she has directly denied she wishes to run for the presidential nomination, issuing a near-Shermanesque statement to that effect. Warren may not be the usual kind of populist that the Democrats are used to embracing at the national candidate level. She had been a Harvard professor and she would have been Barack Obama’s choice to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency that she had helped design – but the Senate would not accede to her appointment. Instead, she became a special advisor to the president, and then, with Obama’s backing, she ran and won the Massachusetts senatorial election in 2012 against Republican populist Scott Brown.

In the process, Warren has crafted a reputation as a defender of the little guy, those at the economy’s margins and at the bottom of the heap, most particularly over financial markets and international trade agreements. For a non-candidate, first-term senator, she has established a very strong public posture in opposing the incumbent president (of her own party) on the still-pending Trans Pacific Trade Partnership. Arguing this still-on-going negotiation between twelve nations around the Pacific littoral is a secret effort, rigged in favour of the rich, the powerful and the top business class and against everyone else, Warren has been the principal cheerleader in the Senate against giving the president the fast track authority to finish the negotiations over the TPTP. Fast track authority would only allow the Senate to vote yea or nay on the final negotiated product, rather than looking over the president’s shoulders and proposing amendment after amendment that each in turn would require the administration to go back and renegotiate with the partner nations, perhaps ad infinitum.

In the face of this, as The Economist argued this past week about Senator Warren, “Most Democrats, presumably, would like to hang on to the White House in 2016. Because convinced liberals are a minority of the American electorate, they will need to woo millions of centrists and swing voters to win the presidency. This being so, it is — to put it kindly — puzzling that so many Democrats want to fight the next election by marching angrily to Barack Obama’s left. Yet, logically, that is what Democratic activists and pundits mean when they urge Senator Elizabeth Warren, de facto leader of the party’s populist wing, to challenge Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination.

“There are a lot of Warren-admirers out there. Even more moderate sorts, who back Mrs Clinton but want her to adopt lots of Mrs Warren’s ideas and rhetoric, should be clear what that means. Mrs Warren stands for more redistribution than Mr Obama does. She would increase Social Security payments to the old and sick by collecting more tax from higher earners, and has clashed with the president over his (very modest) proposals to trim Social Security benefits by adjusting the cost-of-living rate to which they are pegged. Mrs Warren is also leading a Democratic revolt against Mr Obama’s foreign-trade agenda…. But she has achieved clout far beyond her seniority, thanks to her rare talent for turning wonkish arguments into placard-ready slogans. Almost every Democratic senator joined her in a 24-hour rebellion against Mr Obama’s trade policy earlier this month, including several who normally support free trade.

“A frustrated Mr Obama says Mrs Warren is ‘absolutely wrong’ about trade, arguing that America already imports lots from cheaper rivals, would like to nudge partners to open markets, and has a moment of leverage now to shape trading rules that suit all sides.” Disagreeing strenuously, “She issued a 15-page report this week called ‘Broken Promises’, complaining that Mr Obama and previous presidents have not sued foreign governments often enough over their labour or environmental laws. At the same time she says existing trade pacts make it too easy for multinational corporations to sue America. It is sometimes hard to know what sort of trade pact could both please her and be acceptable to any foreign government.”

And so what is the Elizabeth Warren game plan in all this? Virtually nothing happens in American politics now, certainly, without reference to the upcoming presidential election campaign. One theory, of course, is that she holds her principles so firmly and so deeply that her intent is to push or chivvy the seemingly implacable Hillary Clinton campaign for the nomination into embracing positions significantly to the left of where candidate Clinton seems to have placed herself naturally.

A second, less obvious possibility is that she is setting herself up as the saviour of her party. If the Clinton campaign goes belly-up under the combined weight of Clinton fatigue, the corrosive drip-drip-drip of accusations against her over her and her husband’s foundation, her highly remunerated speechmaking and the confusions over her private email server, or even charges that stick over actual policy issues, Senator Warren, champion of the little guy and embodiment of classic populist, liberal values, could be drafted at the convention as the party’s nominee. And this could happen without the need to go through all those messy primaries and caucuses and the infighting that comes with that territory. But this would seem to be the stuff of thriller cinema and political novels – as well as the more fervent dreams of Warren supporters.

Or, perhaps, it is just bad or unfathomable politics on her part. As The Economist concluded in its profile of the Warren phenomenon, “Purists of left and right both face a similar problem: neither side has the numbers to win a presidential election without some crossover voters. But the left arguably has an extra problem. Mrs Warren’s message boils down to: Americans are right to be furious, Washington is run by special interests, government is broken and the economic pie is shrinking—and the solution lies in more Washington, and trusting government to distribute pie more fairly. How would she resolve that paradox? Nobody knows, because Mrs Warren—a shrewd politician—is not actually running for the presidency. Sometime soon, her fans might like to stop and ask themselves why that might be.”

Regardless of how the political fortunes of Carly Fiorina, Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren ultimately play out, their presences on the stage would seem to have changed the nature of the American political game. From now on, women candidates for the presidency will no longer be consigned to the margins or be part of small, fringe parties with no hope of success, or as helpmates to the real candidates. DM

Photo: (L) A file photo dated 01 September 2010 of the then Republican candidate for US Senate Carly Fiorina speaking at a debate in Moraga, California, USA. EPA/JUSTIN SULLIVAN. (R) US Democratic Senator from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren delivers remarks to the news media during a press conference to release the Roosevelt Institute report on addressing Economic Inequality in Washington, DC, USA, 12 May 2015. EPA/SHAWN THEW

Read more:

  • What Elizabeth Warren wants at the Economist
  • Carly Fiorina Talks, Iowa Swoons, as Polls Shrug at the New York Times
  • Now seeking White House, Fiorina’s CEO tenure was stormy at the Washington Post
  • Elizabeth Warren Biography at
  • The Warren Brief – Reading Elizabeth Warren at the New Yorker

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