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Republicans Have Finally Found Their Answer to Hillary Clinton

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is selling herself as the lady-conservative who can finally take on the Democrats' heir apparent.
January 28, 2015, 6:06pm

America, we have our Benghazi candidate. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina endeared herself to the right wing by invoking that most beloved of conservative hobbyhorses, positioning herself as the GOP's response to the Democratic heir apparent.

"Like Hillary Clinton, I too have travelled hundreds of thousands of miles around the globe. But unlike her, I have actually accomplished something. Mrs. Clinton, flying is an activity, not an accomplishment," Fiorina told activists at the Iowa Freedom Summit Saturday. "I have met Vladimir Putin and know that it will take more to halt his ambitions than a gimmicky red Reset button," she boasted. "I know Bibi Netanyahu and know that when he warns us, over and over and over again, that Iran is a danger to this nation as well as to his own, that we must listen."

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And then the kicker: "Unlike Hillary Clinton, I know what difference it makes that our ambassador to Libya and three other brave Americans were killed in a deliberate terrorist attack on the anniversary of 9/11 and that the response of our nation must be more forceful that the arrest of a single individual a year later."

It was a ballsy move for a potential candidate whose name is so far down the list of Republican 2016 favorites that most voters don't even know who she is, much less that she's thinking about running for president. But it worked: In a party desperate for female faces, Fiorina might be the Mitt Romney–Hillary Clinton hybrid conservatives have been waiting for.

Fiorina's origin story is a good one: Stanford-educated wanderer who ends up working as a secretary, then, with a little hard work and ingenuity, ascends the corporate ladder to take over Hewlett Packard in 1999, becoming the first woman in history to run a Fortune 20 company—a glass-ceiling milestone Time magazine described as "arguably more important" than "America's women winning the soccer World Cup." The parallels to Clinton and her own glass-ceiling-breaking are obvious—they even picked matching memoir titles.

But for Fiorina, unlike Clinton, the summit proved harder than the climb. Her career at HP was mired in corporate soap operas, during which time the company's stock lost more than 50 percent of its value and thousands of employees lost their jobs. Fiorina, meanwhile, became a CEO celebrity and an outspoken cheerleader for outsourcing, developing a reputation as an autocratic manager and generally terrible boss. She was eventually forced out in 2005, leaving HP with a $21 million golden parachute and an unenviable legacy. (InfoWorld listed Fiorina as one of "Tech's All-Time Top 25 Flops," calling her the "anti-Steve Jobs.")

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Five years after being ousted, Fiorina attempted a comeback, running for Senate in California against veteran Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer. This initial foray into electoral politics was a disaster, highlighted by what's known as the "Demon Sheep Ad," a breathtaking piece of incoherence that compared Fiorina's primary opponent to a demonic sheep. It's one of the worst/best political advertisements of all time, and it put Fiorina on national radar, at least until Boxer obliterated her in the statewide election.

If Fiorina does decide to run for president, this is the record she will have to spin for voters: a controversial career as a real-life Bill Lumbergh, and a Senate campaign that reached its zenith by dressing a man up as a farm animal. But judging by her speech in Iowa and the elated response from right-wing activists, the idea of a Carly 2016 campaign may not be quite as ludicrous as it sounds.

Conservatives have always fantasized that the president is just "America's CEO," and Fiorina, despite her very mixed record as a business executive, seems to fill that role, at least for the kinds of people who show up at the Iowa Freedom Summit, a right-wing circus that exists mostly for the economic benefit of the state's Tea Party cottage industry. In addition to her Benghazi drum-beating, she staked out territory as a fervent opponent of abortion—"liberals believe that flies are worth protecting," she told the audience, "but that the life of an unborn child is not"—and a free-market conservative. Recently, she even went so far as to write an op-ed for the Washington Post defending corporate victims like Royal Dutch Shell, the 11th-biggest company in the world, against Greenpeace's "climate-change pressure campaigns."

The truth is, Republican voters have fallen for a lot worse. Herman Cain, for example. Or Fred Thompson. In time, Fiorina will almost certainly meet the same fate as these other Republican one-night-stands. But as the only potential female candidate in a vast sea of old, mostly white men, she's uniquely positioned to bash Hillary Clinton from the right—a priceless trump card that could give this Benghazi lemon more juice than anyone imagined.

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