Carly Fiorina and the GOP Outsider Boom

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Carly Fiorina Campaigns In South Carolina
Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina. Photo: Sean Rayford/2015 Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Carly Fiorina’s rise, Scott Walker’s fall, and Donald Trump being Donald Trump. 

Carly Fiorina has risen faster than anyone in the Republican field since the last debate, while making a series of statements that have some commentators describing her “willful disregard … or ignorance of reality.” How do you explain her rise?
A willful disregard or ignorance of reality is hardly disqualifying in the GOP presidential sweepstakes! If nothing else, Fiorina’s fictional Planned Parenthood video suggests she might have more success cooking up gory B-movie scenarios in the San Fernando Valley than she had running Hewlett-Packard in Silicon Valley. In that real-life business horror story, Fiorina slashed 30,000 employees, not to mention shareholder value, while mismanaging what had been one of the most fabled corporations in American business.

Fiorina’s rise after the last debate is coming at the expense of the previous “skyrocketing” Republican contender, the retired pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson. The theory had been that Carson was the kinder, gentler “outsider” who would finally usurp Donald Trump. But, as it happened, the good doctor proved to have all the pep on-camera that one of his patients might exhibit shortly after being given anesthesia. Worse, despite his ostensible prowess as a man of medicine, Carson waffled when confronted with Trump’s debate fiction about a link between vaccines and autism. That both Fiorina and Carson have enjoyed booms, however transitory they may prove to be, makes one thing clear. The base would prefer almost anyone, and so far Trump most of all, to Jeb Bush or any of the other choices that the GOP Establishment has put its big bets on. In new polls out over the past couple of days, from Fox News and Quinnipiac, the results are markedly similar in the spreads separating Trump from Carson and Fiorina, and show that a majority of Republicans favor one of these three outsiders over the rest of the field combined.

Fiorina may be impaled by the Washington shutdown, should it happen; she endorsed what Karl Rove has called the “suicide” strategy of holding the government hostage to the defunding of Planned Parenthood. Should she crater, be assured that she has a strong understudy waiting in the wings: Meg Whitman, the current CEO at HP, who just announced her plan to lay off another 30,000 workers. The similarities don’t end there: Like Fiorina, who ran for Senate against Barbara Boxer, Whitman ran as a Republican for statewide office in California in 2010 (for governor, against Jerry Brown) and lost by double digits. Should she, too, get fired by HP, she’ll have the perfect résumé for entering the Republican presidential race.

Scott Walker, who started his run for the GOP nomination as the reported favorite of the Koch brothers, now says he’s been “called to lead by helping clear the field” of candidates — starting with himself. Does his campaign’s failure show the limits of super-pac politics?
Not necessarily. Walker was a ridiculous candidate and would remain so no matter how much money any billionaires poured into his super-pac. Back in early July, a few days before Walker announced his run, I was at a small gathering in Washington where a prominent Republican political operative (not affiliated with any of the 2016 campaigns, and not speaking for attribution) gave a rollicking tour of the field. Of Walker, he said, “There are two reasons he can’t win. First, he has a bald spot. Second, he’s stupid.”

Suffice it to say that Walker’s presidential run was farce from start to finish, from his three different positions on the issue of “birthright citizenship” to his calling Reagan’s busting of the air-traffic controllers’ strike of 1981 “the most significant foreign policy decision of my lifetime.” At the CNN debate, he had all the charisma of a department-store mannequin. Yet not long ago he was a rock star. He’s “the one guy in the race who has shown how to defeat the media and Democrat coordinated attacks on conservatives,” said Rush Limbaugh as Walker entered the race. He’s “a truly impressive individual,” effused the right-wing Washington Post pundit Marc Thiessen. Fox News hosts fell over themselves to boost him as a union-busting “hero.” At FiveThirtyEight in March, Nate Silver used what he called “totally subjective odds” to rate the first-tier Republican candidates on the likelihood of their getting the nomination and deduced that Walker was on top (at 26 percent), ahead of Bush (24 percent) and Marco Rubio (16 percent). 

This week, after Walker dropped out, The Wall Street Journal ran a news story explaining that Rubio would benefit by inheriting much of Walker’s fund-raising apparatus and donors, since he, too, is a “fresh face ready to shake up Washington.” Never mind that Rubio, unlike Walker, is already in Washington (where his strategy for shaking things up seems to have been to miss more Senatorial votes than anyone else in the race). Or that the voters Rubio might inherit from Walker do not even amount to a rounding error; Walker was polling at less than 0.5 percent at the end. In any case, Rubio’s candidacy is almost uniformly described by the press and Republican pols as more substantive than most (especially on foreign policy), and he’s been widely judged as one of the strongest contenders — if not the strongest — at both debates. But with recent polling numbers still averaging at roughly 10 percent, Rubio, like Bush, is thus far a candidate who looks theoretically great on paper to all the professionals in the media-political complex, but not so much to Republican primary voters who are the actual deciders.

Donald Trump again played the (barely) coded racism card when he didn’t contradict a supporter’s birther canards about President Obama. Can he keep doing this without paying a price?
Seems so. The true answer to this question can be found not in Trump’s various outrages — whether the latest or all those that came before — but in the fact that most of his rivals respond to his slurs by either agreeing with him or refusing to take a stand altogether. The only three candidates who immediately criticized Trump this time — Chris Christie, Lindsey Graham, and Bush — had nothing to lose by coming out against bigotry. Two of them aren’t polling any better than Walker was, and Bush, though faring somewhat better, is fighting for his political life. The other candidates are cowering as usual or, in Carson’s case, going Trump one better by saying that Muslims should be barred from the presidency.

In 1961, Barry Goldwater advised Republicans that they should “go hunting where the ducks are” by currying favor with segregationist voters in the Deep South. Carson’s campaign manager, Barry Bennett, was similarly unapologetic about his candidate’s intentions in playing the Islamophobia card, telling the Associated Press this week thatRepublican primary voters are with us at least 80-20.” Let’s not pretend otherwise.