After watching some of the speeches delivered by would-be Republican presidential contenders over the weekend at Iowa Rep. Steve King's conservative confab in Des Moines, I got to wondering how long it will take Republicans to field a female presidential candidate who actually has a shot at winning.
Women seem to be tokens in the GOP presidential stakes, serving the party's strategic needs more than anything else. For 2016, it's become an article of faith that the GOP needs a woman to immunize the party against charges that attacks on presumed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton are sexist. ("The most effective way to criticize a woman is to have another woman do it," a California GOP strategist told Time's Jay Newton-Small in November.)
So who can help?
Not Sarah Palin.
The former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential candidate trekked to King's inaugural Freedom Summit to deliver a disjointed speech that focused mainly on settling scores with people who have attacked her for, among other things, letting her son step on his service dog. Her rambling remarks were entertaining -- she is always that -- but hardly presidential. (Even her longtime fans were turned off. One conservative columnist called her speech "barely coherent.")
It seems that the job is falling to Carly Fiorina, who gave a well-received speech noteworthy mainly for its broadsides against Clinton.
Fiorina has never held political office, but the former Hewlett-Packard chief has been toiling away in Republican political trenches ever since she lost the U.S. Senate campaign against Barbara Boxer in 2010. Despite Fiorina's lack of name recognition, Iowa conservatives liked what she had to say.
"She came across as a highly intelligent woman and a strong leader," one GOP party official told the Washington Times. "She did herself the most good."
Her biggest applause lines were the whacks she took at Clinton.
"Like Hillary Clinton," she said, "I too have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles around the globe. But unlike her, I have actually accomplished something…. Having done business in over 80 countries and having served as the chairman of the external advisory board at the CIA for several years, I know that China and Russia are state sponsors of cyberwarfare and have a strategy to steal our intellectual property. I know Bibi Netanyahu and know that when he warns us that Iran is a danger to this nation as well as his own, that we must listen."
Leaving aside the issue of what Clinton accomplished as secretary of state in the first Obama term, the problem for Fiorina, should she become a serious candidate, or even a high-profile surrogate, is the business record she accumulated while visiting all those countries.
Her six-year tenure at Hewlett-Packard was marred by extensive domestic layoffs. She insisted that sending jobs to other countries was not offshoring but what she dubbed "right shoring." ("There is no job that is America's God-given right anymore," she once told a congressional committee.)
Also, she was forced to defend charges that Hewlett-Packard violated the spirit of a trade embargo against Iran on her watch.
In 2010, I wrote about Fiorina's business record during her campaign against Boxer.
She was rightfully heralded as a pioneer when she became the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company in 1999. But a couple of years after she took the reins at HP, she engineered a controversial merger with Compaq Computer Corp. that sparked a corrosive fight with the families of HP's founders, who accused her of ruining Hewlett-Packard's famously collegial culture.
"To be fair to Carly," David Woodley Packard told me in 2010, "the HP board should have known better when it hired her. If you have a pet bunny and get a pet ferret, you can't really blame the ferret for eating the bunny. That's what ferrets do."
Fiorina has insisted that she created more jobs than she eliminated while running HP, a claim that is almost impossible to verify as the company merged with Compaq, acquired many smaller firms but laid off tens of thousands of workers.
"I would say she has created a lot of jobs," a Hewlett-Packard engineer named Dan Dove told me in 2010. "But they are not in the United States."
As for the trade embargo, Fiorina was accused during her Senate race of allowing Hewlett-Packard to sell hundreds of millions of dollars in printers to Iran at a time when American companies were forbidden to engage in such trade. Fiorina said the company did nothing illegal, which was technically true, as the sales were made by a Dutch subsidiary of the company, which HP owned but did not control.
Trade experts said that HP did not break the law, but rather circumvented it using a loophole that other companies also exploited. Two years after Fiorina was fired by HP's board of directors, however, the company amended its policy and announced it would prohibit its distributors from selling products in Iran.
"Having recently examined the situation," the company announced, "we believe it's important to go beyond the letter of the law."
If Fiorina plans to use her business record to bash Clinton, let alone as a rationale for a presidential campaign, expect to hear more about her stormy tenure at Hewlett-Packard.