Why Carly Fiorina is so critical to McCain's presidential campaign.

Commentary about business and finance.
May 13 2008 4:35 PM

McCain's Economic Brain

Why Carly Fiorina is so important to the Republican's presidential campaign.

One of the most important figures in the presidential campaign this fall is a controversial, hypercompetent blonde. She has blazed new paths, is always on message, and has written a best-selling memoir. Friends and foes alike refer to her by her first name only. And she'll play a significant role shoring up the bona fides of her party's candidate among a core constituency that might be wavering.

No, I'm not talking about the Democrats sending out Hillary Clinton on behalf of Barack Obama to reassure white working-class voters. Rather, I'm talking about Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard, being sent out to reassure business-class voters on behalf of John McCain. Fiorina has emerged as the most prominent surrogate on economics issues in any of the major campaigns, and her alliance with McCain suggests both his strength and his weakness on the subject.

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In July 1999, when Fiorina was named chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard, she became the first woman to run one of the companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Her rocky, five-and-a-half-year tenure was full of drama: a big, ill-timed merger with Compaq in September 2001; the dot-com/tech meltdown; difficulty managing the board and other executives. When she resigned in February 2005, there was much speculation that the charismatic executive would pursue a career in public life. In March, the Republican National Committee named her victory chairman, and she pledged to stump for McCain.

At first, Fiorina seemed likely to perform the role that then-Goldman Sachs co-head Robert Rubin played for Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign. Democrats frequently need business surrogates and market whisperers: rich, successful people who can reassure the CEO class that the candidate won't threaten them much and that he understands the needs of business and the markets. Republicans traditionally haven't required such ambassadors, but McCain does. The Bush fiscal mismanagement of the past eight years and the continuing realignment of the educated and wealthy toward the Democrats have made Republicans suspect on Wall Street. In 2004, an impressive list of executives declared themselves as business leaders for Kerry. And while a list of economists have signed on to McCain's non-reality-based economic program, big-shot CEOs haven't been rushing to endorse him.

McCain is a particularly suspect Republican. He opposed the Bush tax cuts. He has admitted that the economy isn't his strong suit. He's doesn't have an instinctive grasp of how to talk about many of the biggest economic issues.

This is where Fiorina comes in. Here's how Newsweek's Andrew Romano described the McCain-Fiorina dynamic at an event for small-business people in Brooklyn, N.Y., in April:

McCain poses a pat question, nods, scribbles and eventually lets Fiorina bail him out—whether by riffing on his "classic straight talk" support of nuclear energy or boasting of his belief in "the power of choice" to improve the health-care system. When Fiorina concluded with a two-minute speechlet on how, "even in this short period of time you can understand why I, as a businesswoman, have entrusted the economy to [McCain]," I couldn't help but think, "Not really."

Fiorina is tailor-made for McCain. Her memoir is titled Tough Choices. McCain loves to talk about making tough choices. And beyond talking business, she performs several other functions. She's a moderate, a globalist, a woman based in California, a rational believer in technology—in other words, she embodies attributes that were once prized by the Republican coalition but that have since been driven out of it by Karl Rove and George W. Bush. She also has skills that make her perfect for a political campaign: She's a highly articulate salesperson who is always closing the deal. So it's not surprising that Fiorina's portfolio is expanding. On ABC's This Week last Sunday, Fiorina showed a Terry McAuliffe-esque ability to stay on message. She went far beyond her core competencies of economics and trade, striding confidently into foreign and social policy. She repeatedly highlighted the "clear places where George Bush and John McCain differ." Defending McCain's absurd proposal for a gas-tax holiday, she agreed that virtually no economist thinks it's a good idea. "But, you see, I don't think it matters. Because I think economists sometimes argue about the theory." When Stephanopoulos pushed back, she moved on to talk about earmarks and discretionary spending. She proclaimed her business bona fides—"I'm a businessperson. I know that incentives and competition in the private marketplace work"—and fought Stephanopoulos to a standstill on the issue of corporate tax rates. Like Manny Ramirez taking batting practice, she casually swatted McCain's pro-life record, the Republican Party's harsh anti-abortion platform, and Cindy McCain's refusal to release her tax records out of the park.

Fiorina's performance was noteworthy not just because it was good but because it was unusual. So far, business leaders have been missing from this presidential campaign. Wall Street, long a source of executive statesmen, has been so damaged by the credit-crunch auto-da-fé that the usual suspects have either resigned in quasi-disgrace or are too busy raising money from the Persian Gulf to worry about U.S. politics. Hedge fund, private equity, and venture capital types, who also like to dabble in politics, are cutting a lower profile because they don't want to call too much attention to their wealth and are trying to fight off efforts to end their indefensibly favorable tax treatment. During economic boom times, the public is generally quite interested in hearing what CEOs have to say, and campaigns benefit from their imprimatur. During times of bust, not so much. Fiorina is also working as a McCain surrogate partly because she hasn't landed another executive job since she bounced from HP. So expect to see a lot more of her—and of another blond, California-based, retired-CEO, McCain campaign co-chair, Meg Whitman, most recently of eBay—on the political talk shows.

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.