Fiorina rehearses a threadbare script

The most cherished American credo is that anyone can grow up and run for high office.

Carly Fiorina's candidacy for the U.S. Senate, which she formally announced Wednesday, will put this notion to the test. Specifically: Can someone who has spent the last few years running from her checkered record as a big-business CEO, shown so little interest in politics that she consistently failed to vote and has at best a tenuous grasp of such major issues as healthcare reform prevail in a statewide California election?

Fiorina launched her campaign with an op-ed in the Orange County Register and a kickoff rally at the Garden Grove plant of Earth Friendly Products, a maker of "green" detergents.

Even by California standards, this was a curious event. If nothing else, it may establish the Fiorina campaign as a pioneer in moving the art of product placement out of Hollywood and into politics, as it started with an introduction by Earth Friendly's PR lady, Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, who seemed to spend more time extolling her merchandise ("We deliver responsible sustainability in all of our products, including our bestsellers, Ecos Wave and Dishmate . . .") than Fiorina's candidacy.

Still, it did give Fiorina an aura of being the business-friendly Senate candidate. This plainly will be a major theme of her campaign against Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer. (Assuming Fiorina beats state Assemblyman of Irvine in the GOP primary.)

When I examined a Fiorina-Boxer matchup two months ago, I noted that few could argue that we wouldn't benefit from seeing Boxer defend her 17-year record in the Senate, and asked whether Fiorina would make the race about us, the voters, rather than about the most frequent subject of her public appearances and her 2006 book, "Tough Choices," herself.

But Wednesday's event leads me to wonder not whether it will be about us, or Fiorina, or Boxer, but whether it will be about anything.

Fiorina spent most of her time onstage rehearsing a threadbare script. She reviewed her bona-fides as a glamorous business leader, reminding the audience of her tenure as chairwoman and chief executive of Hewlett-Packard Co. starting in 1999, without making too much of the fact that she was fired by the Hewlett-Packard board in 2005, or that its stock declined by 60% on her watch. She mentioned that HP is now one of the country's leading high-tech companies, but managed not to give too much credit to her successor, Mark Hurd, who led the turnaround.

But she may not have succeeded in settling the riddle of whether she's really serious about politics. Already she has been embarrassed by the disclosure that she failed to vote in 75% of California state elections since 2000, including all gubernatorial elections and presidential primaries.

In her Register op-ed, Fiorina explained that this was because "I felt disconnected from the decisions made in Washington and, to be honest, really didn't think my vote mattered because I didn't have a direct line of sight from my vote to a result."

Yet during her reign at Hewlett-Packard, according to public records, her corporation spent $4.7 million to lobby Congress and donated more than $390,000 to political candidates through its political action committee. Fiorina and her husband, Frank, a former AT&T; executive, have made more than $100,000 in political donations personally since 2000.

That suggests not that Fiorina "felt disconnected" from what was going on in Washington, but rather that she understood all too well that in politics, money talks. Why bother to vote when you can get what you need with greenbacks?

For all that, candidate Fiorina probably will be judged less by her approach to politics in the past than by what she contributes on the issues of today.

It's evident from her campaign material that she plans to use her experience as a cancer survivor -- she says she successfully completed chemo and radiation treatment for breast cancer -- as an entree into the healthcare reform debate. Yet her approach to this issue so far is less than compelling.

For example, she called for "transparency" in the debate. "Wouldn't you love to know what's in that 1,990-page healthcare bill that's being considered right now?" Fiorina asked the crowd at Wednesday's event, referring to the House of Representatives' majority proposal. "Wouldn't you love to know what they're putting in that?"

Fair question, and yes, I'd love to know. So I downloaded the thing off the government website:h3962ih.txt.pdf where it's been published, and now have the full text in hand, for perusal at my leisure. Imagine my surprise to discover that it's no secret.

One would think that as a former high-tech executive, Fiorina would be on top of advances like the government's Thomas website, where all such bills can be found, but maybe she finds it more to her political advantage to pretend it doesn't exist.

More disturbing is her advocacy of allowing insurers to sell policies across state lines.

This is a "reform" the insurance industry has been after for years, because it would allow them to evade the more stringent regulations of some states by selling all their policies out of states with hands-off regulators.

For a clue to how this works, notice how credit card companies issue their cards from banks in places like South Dakota and Nevada, which have no usury limits, rather than, say, California, where the cap is 10%. But even Californians can't sign up for a card issued in California, so we're stuck with the South Dakota sky's-the-limit variety.

Cross-state health insurance wouldn't affect Fiorina, because as she acknowledged Wednesday, she gets her medical care through her husband's AT&T; retirement plan.

Therefore it's my duty to explain to her what would happen if she were an average person who lost that AT&T; coverage and had to replace it in an individual market where the insurers could sell it to her on their own terms, subject to the rules of the most lenient and consumer-unfriendly states: As a cancer survivor, she'd be uninsurable.

Fiorina doesn't really have to worry about that, because her $40-million walkaway package from Hewlett-Packard enables her to be her own health insurer, if need be.

But what about the rest of us? The common theme of ex-CEOs like Fiorina when they run for office is that their opponents are insensitive to the needs of business because they never had to meet a payroll. But entitled CEOs who haven't had to live a normal middle-class or working-class life for years are as much of a scourge.

Fiorina clearly plans to use her experience with cancer in the campaign ("After chemotherapy, Barbara Boxer just isn't really that scary anymore," she said Wednesday). But she didn't display much empathy for patients whose main problem might not be that their doctors don't communicate with one another (this is one of Fiorina's preoccupations), but that they don't have access to any doctors, because they can't get insurance.

So here's the tally thus far on Fiorina the candidate: Business celebrity with an equivocal record, cancer survivor with a secure employer-sponsored health plan, "problem-solving" candidate spouting ancient Republican nostrums. I can hardly contain my excitement.

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Michael Hiltzik's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Reach him at michael.hiltzik@latimes.com, read him at www.latimes.com/ hiltzik, and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday, November 11, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 98 words Type of Material: Correction Carly Fiorina and HP stock: A Michael Hiltzik column in the Business section and a news article in Section A, both published Thursday, cited two different figures for the decline in Hewlett-Packard Co. shares during Carly Fiorina's tenure as its chief executive. The Hiltzik column said the stock fell 60%, and was based on the day of Fiorina's appointment and the last day she worked at the company. The news article cited a 49% drop, which included the day after her last work day -- when her resignation was announced -- as well as adjustments for stock dividends.
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