She wasn’t even supposed to be there.
Carly Fiorina tore through her second Republican debate in the 2016 race with one fiercely articulate answer after another.
She exuded a fiery resolve and competency; a capacity for leadership and efficiency that seemed to elevate her above the petty squabbles of partisan rancor and the bluster of reality TV.
Her trajectory has been compared to that of another novice politician from the world of business, Donald Trump. Yet she had managed to emulate the best of the real estate mogul’s tactics with none of his liabilities. She exhibited his impatience for political niceties, but little of his craven nastiness. If she was brusque, she seemed to say, it’s because she had things to do, not people to smear.
As if in counterpoint to the The Donald’s habit of spackling over his ignorance with words like “greatest,” “terrific,” and “Trump,” Fiorina came armed with robust details, reams of hard data, and specific action plans, which she rattled off with confidence and poise. It was like viewing a PowerPoint presentation by flashes of lightning
Fiorina had edged her way into the top-tier debate after CNN amended its rules to include polls that had come out after her strong showing in the August debate. In addition to Fiorina and Trump, nine other candidates had assembled in the shadow of Ronald Reagan’s Air Force One, docked at the Gipper’s presidential library in Simi Valley, California: the retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Texas senator Ted Cruz, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, Florida senator Marco Rubio, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Ohio governor John Kasich, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and Kentucky senator Rand Paul.
In areas where the candidates were generally agreed, Fiorina was uncommonly forceful and succinct in pronouncing the party line. Iran and Planned Parenthood, she said, were twin issues: The former regarded the defense and security of the nation; the latter, the character of the nation.
She repeated her promise from the August debate — to make two phone calls on her first day in office: one to “my friend Bibi Netanyahu” to assure him that the U.S. was allied with Israel, and the second to the Ayatollah of Iran, Ali Khamenei, to let him know that America was “back in the leadership business.”
Regarding Planned Parenthood, she cited the videos that had been produced by an anti-abortion group, edited to make it appear that the women’s health organization had been harvesting fetuses and selling them, claims which Fiorina seemed to take at face value. Anyone who watched the tapes, she said, would have serious doubts about the “character of our nation.”
Where other candidates seemed to falter or rest too easily on stale talking points, she brought a fresh sense of proficiency and resolve, a moral conviction that did not exclude a deep understanding on the complexities at play, which resisted being reduced to campaign slogans.
She was not shy about calling candidates out, especially Trump, who claimed to have brought immigration to the table, when he made his border wall project and the scourge of Mexican “drugs” and “rapists” the cornerstones of his announcement speech. Fiorina unequivocally that shut down: “Trump did not invent immigration. We have been talking about this for 25 years.”
On the issue of birthright citizenship, she told Trump: “You can’t just wave your hands and say make the 14th Amendment go away.” She cautioned that immigration reform would be a long, arduous process, implicitly warning voters to resist the simplistic deport-’em-all rhetoric of nativism, but that she knew what it would take to accomplish it: manpower, money, and leadership — “The kind of leadership that gets results.”
What could Trump say to that? “I agree 100 percent,” he said. Compared to the conspicuously data-armed Fiorina, Trump’s hand-waving began to resemble a bad joke.
Trump’s brand of braggadocio seemed, at last, to be reaching the limits of its effectiveness. He took repeated shots at a relatively easy target, Rand Paul, whose libertarian streak puts him on the outs with the party line on foreign policy, drugs, and marriage equality. Trump claimed Paul shouldn’t even be on the stage, given that he was #11 in the polls.
And when Paul accused Trump of “careless language” that included “junior-high”-caliber insults about people’s looks, Trump responded: “I never attacked him [Paul] by his looks, and believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter right there.”
Carson coasted on his mild manner and adherence to many conservative lines on wages, immigration, and Christianity. His anodyne temperament and air of benevolence, as usual, seeming to excuse the gaps in his expertise, even as he described social programs as a “spigot that dispenses all the goodies,” and on the question of minimum wage, said simply: “It’s all about America, you know.”
Then the doctor came out swinging against the anti-vaxxer hysteria, calling Trump’s remarks about the link between autism and the MMR vaccine meritless. And he spoke of his vision to renew the nation through a “Kennedy-esque” effort to galvanize industry, academia, and business; as well as his conviction that strong leadership in the global sphere needed to be tempered by intellect.
“Radical islam cannot be solved by intellect,” Rubio retorted. The Florida senator emerged as cool and collected, steeled in his determination to bring the fight to our enemies abroad. He decried the notion that “somehow by retreating we make the world safer,” saying it “has been disproven every single time.”
Paul cautioned that our military campaigns in the Middle East have historically had a way of backfiring, that “sometimes intervention makes us less safe.” Every time we’ve toppled a secular leader, he said, it has led to chaos. We do need to be engaged in global affairs, but sensibly, and a sensible foreign policy didn’t include fighting in a civil war when both sides were evil, or playing the patsy while fighting other people’s wars.
Christie and Paul picked up the fight where they had left it last month, switching from domestic surveillance and due process to the question of drugs. Paul made the argument that locking up nonviolent offenders for drug charges—overwhelmingly people of color—was a gross national mistake, and that the 10th Amendment left questions of drug policy to the states. (Christie had said prior to the debate that he would kill recreational marijuana in states where it is legal.)
Huckabee and Cruz continued in their parallel quests to cast themselves as conservative America’s last best hope at an effective Christian theocracy, where Supreme Court Justices would only be nominated if they could be relied upon to uphold God’s laws. Huckabee said that under his presidency abortion would be outlawed unconditionally and made “as much a scourge in our past as slavery is.”
Cruz proudly proclaimed that thanks largely to his success at having torpedoed gun control legislation efforts after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, he had won the endorsement of Gun Owners of America. The Texas senator also echoed his apocalyptic claims regarding the deal with Iran, which he said was “nothing short of catastrophic.”
“If you are voting for Hillary Clinton,” he said “you are voting to give Ayatollah Khamenei a nuclear weapon.”
Kasich, who has emerged as a relative moderate and voice of reason in the GOP field, locked horns with the staunch conservative on his promises to tear up the Iran nuclear deal on his first day in office and to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood in the coming weeks. He argued that unilaterally rescinding the deal with Iran would have enormous consequences for our ability to work with our allies and build consensus. We can be strong as a country, he said, but not necessarily going it alone.
The Ohio governor and former House Budget Committee Chairman also expressed his sympathies with those who wanted to defund Planned Parenthood, but he stressed that “when it comes to shutting down the federal government, we need to be very careful about that.”
Finally, a barely visible Walker touted his union-busting accomplishments in Wisconsin.
Throughout the night, the candidates fell dispiritingly into line along a familiar range of topics: Environmental legislation could not solve climate change, only hurt U.S. businesses (besides, Rubio said, “America is not a planet”). The “judicial tyranny” of the five Supreme Court Justices who said gay people could marry must be stopped. Guns are good. Abortions are bad. And so on.
And underneath it all, as Fiorina’s star rose, voters witnessed the caving of one erst-frontrunner and perhaps the first implosion of another. Jeb Bush and Donald Trump’s limp and petty slap fighting culminated in arguably the most uncomfortable high-five in American political history, which, if nothing else, proved that neither man knows how to pivot.
Photo: Republican presidential candidate and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina speaks during the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. September 16, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson