Rise & fall of the anti-Trumps: Why these GOP pretenders don't have a snowball's chance in hell

After the first GOP debate, three names were gathering steam: Fiorina, Carson & Kasich — but each of them is doomed

By Paul Rosenberg

Published August 19, 2015 9:26PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reuters/Nati Harnik/Rebecca Cook/Donna Carson/Brendan McDermid/Salon)
(AP/Reuters/Nati Harnik/Rebecca Cook/Donna Carson/Brendan McDermid/Salon)

In the immediate aftermath of the GOP’s first debate a handful of winners emerged. In the first 3 post-debate polls, Donald Trump maintained his lead, though his numbers showed little movement. Surviving yet another supposedly campaign episode—his clash with Megan Kelly and Fox News more generally—he once again grabbed the lion’s share of attention. But there were three big winners in terms of percentage gain: Carly Fiorina, whose 3-poll average jumped 325% from 1.33% before the debate to 5.67% after, Ben Carson whose average jumped 115% from 4.33% to 9.33%, and John Kaisich, whose average jumped 80% from 1.67 to 3%. Since then, Fiorina seems destined for the main stage debate, Carson has surged to second place in Iowa, and Kasich has surged to a stastical tie with Bush in New Hampshire.

Could these three winners be signs of hope for the GOP? Some in the pundit class might like you to believe that—especially when it comes to Fiorina and Kaisich. But Fiorina and Carson are both “outsider candidates,” non-career politicians, like Trump, whose rise might better be read as more trouble for the GOP. What’s more, they’ve all got major flaws, which haven't gotten much attention previously. Now that they've got some fresh wind in their sails, what better time to knock it out?

To begin with: Fiorina is both a business disaster (“HP’s stock declined some 50% during Fiorina’s tenure while the overall market, as measured by the S&P 500, fell 7%”) and a double-digit political loser who tries, but fails, to combat the GOP's war-on-women reputation. Carson's a highly respected neurosurgeon who, as we’ll see, is viewed by many black Americans as having embarrassed himself and tarnished his legacy. Kaisich has a mediocre record as governor, and his cagey efforts to seem "reasonable" have turned both activists and donors against him, making his primary prospects poor. If they all sound lackluster at best, that’s because they are. So what does it say that they’re on the rise?

Fiorina garnered the greatest buzz of all the non-Trump candidates with her performance in the "kiddie table" debate, so it makes sense to focus first on her. But she also deserves a much deeper look because of how much the GOP needs to push back against its well-deserved “war on women” image. When Fiorina announced her candidacy, Media Matters pointed out that promoting Fiorina as a “rebuttal” to the “war on women” narrative ignores the anti-women impact of her policies, citing her positions on the gender pay gap, the minimum wage, and access to reproductive health services. But her hostility particularly impacts working women, and reflects a broader antagonist attitude towards workers, as well see below.

Relatedly, Fiorina claims to understand the populist anger Trump is tamping into. In a 2006 InformationWeek interview, talking about her time as CEO of Hewlett Packard, she said, “In the course of my time there, we laid off over 30,000 people. That's why I understand where the anger came from.” Of course she understands the anger: She caused it!

Fiorina is Trump-like in her views of money and politics, too. Michael Hiltzik, one of the sharpest writers at the LA Times, also has a helpful summary of Fiorina's woefully sub-par record, not just as a failed CEO, but as a failed citizen—"she had failed to cast a ballot in 75% of the California elections for which she was an eligible voter"—offering the excuse that "I felt disconnected from the decisions made in Washington and, to be honest, really didn't think my vote mattered," even as HP spent millions lobbying and supporting candidates, while she and her husband "have made more than $100,000 in political donations personally since 2000," leading Hiltzik to conclude, "In other words, she believes in the political system, just not the one that non-millionaires have to use."

A good overview of Fiorina's failure as a business leader can be gotten from a recent commentary in Fortune, "Carly Fiorina as a boss: The disappointing truth," by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies at the Yale School of Management. Sonnenfeld first points out that it’s erroneous to cite Fiorina as the first woman to head a Fortune 500 company—citing much more substantive pioneers, starting with Katharine Graham, and followed by the likes of “Beechcraft’s Olive Ann Beech, Mattel’s Ruth Handler, Beatrice Food’s Loida Nicolas-Lewis, the Body Shop’s Anita Roddick, Martha Stewart, and Oprah Winfrey.”

Figures like Winfrey, Stewart and Roddick indelibly shaped their companies. In sharp contrast, Fiorina took a company already shaped by its founders’ collaborative ethos, known as “the HP Way,” and viciously attacked, if not destroyed that defining ethos. “Fired in 2005, after six years in office, several leading publications titled her one of the worst technology CEOs of all time,” Sonnenfeld notes. “In fact, the stock popped 10% on the news of her firing and closed the day up 7%.” That’s one way to create shareholder value!

A broader, more extensive picture can be found in a 2009 summary post at Media Matter's Political Correction site, although the post actually understates how damaging her record was—citing 18,000 workers fired, when Fiorina herself has admitted to 30,000. A few highlights from the record recounted there are:

(1) The centerpiece of Fiorina's tenure at HP, the merger with Compaq, was described in a Fortune cover story as “a big bet that didn't pay off, that didn't even come close to attaining what Fiorina and HP's board said was in store."

(2) Before the merger, the company was floundering under Fiorina, with a massive wave of 6,000 layoffs—after 80,000 employees had voluntarily signed up for cuts in pay and vacation time with the expectation of avoiding layoffs—and there was talk of her being fired, as noted by the Economist in September 2001:

She has had to warn repeatedly of disappointing results. In the nine months to July, HP saw its net profit fall by 82%, to $506m. The company has slashed costs and asked staff to volunteer for a temporary 10% pay cut.

(3) The merger was only approved by a razor-thin margin, as a result of unethical dealings by Fiorina to pressure shareholders for support. Sonnenfeld provides a succinct summary of the messier details collected at Political Correction, including how Fiorina used Deutsche Bank’s commercial bankers to pressure the purportedly independent Deutsche Bank fund managers to reverse their vote of 17 million shares against the deal. One thing Sonnenfeld leaves out: the SEC imposed a $750,000 fine on Deutsche Bank’s investment unit “for failing to disclose a material conflict of interest in its voting of client proxies for the 2002 merger.”

(4) HP kept billions in profits overseas, to avoid paying US taxes:

By the end of its 2003 fiscal year, Hewlett-Packard Co. had "indefinitely" deferred taxation on $14.4 billion of foreign earnings, according to SEC filings, a move that helped lower its effective tax rate from the statutory corporate income tax rate of 35 percent to 12 percent.

Other companies did this, too, but HP went even farther, joining a smaller group of companies who knowingly circumvent US law (via Dubai, and other cut-out nests) to sell its products into Iran. Yes, Iran! Although HP began the practice before Fiorina took over, it flourished under her.

In short, there’s more than enough in Fiorina’s record to sink three or four “anti-Hillary” dream candidates. But there’s so much wrong with her, it can be challenging to organize it coherently. Fortunately, there’s a cure for that. A deeply thoughtful, focused critique of Fiorina’s leadership tenure at HP, which should be required reading for any journalist covering her, comes from Craig Johnson's article in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, “The Rise and Fall of Carly Fiorina: An Ethical Case Study.” Johnson uses a framework known as the ethical leadership construct, and finds fault with HP’s board as well as Fiorina—a clear signal of a serious study, not a hit job.

The ethical leadership construct has two main aspects: first, “the demonstration of normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships,” and second, “the promotion of such conduct to followers through two-way communication, reinforcement, and decision-making.” Fiorina’s clash with “The HP Way” figures prominently in Johnson’s account, so it’s worth noting that while Fiorina arrived during trying times for HP, which became her pretext for the attack, this was not the first time HP had known hard times. The concluding passage of a contemporary account in the Palo Alto Weekly, began thus:

Some have argued it is easier for a company to promote a strong corporate culture when times are good. And, conversely, that in rough times, companies don't have the luxury of adhering to core values. But those who lived through decades of the HP Way would disagree, pointing out that some of the most trying times in the company's history were also the times when the HP Way was demonstrated most clearly. In fact, Stanford emeritus professor Jerry Porras wrote in his book, "Built to Last," that a strong, almost "cult-like" culture is one of the factors contributing to the overall financial success of visionary companies.

Johnson describes Fiorina as an “ethically neutral” leader, according to the dictates of the construct, but in the end he questions whether this category is really valid. Fiorina’s focus on results, regardless of how they were achieved, had a truly toxic effect. They lead to billing practices at Lucent sales, where she served before HP, which included financing purchases by customers with no clear ability to pay—a variation on the subprime mortgage theme. When customers went under as the dot-com bubble burst, the results proved catastrophic for the company Fiorina had left behind:

Unethical sales practices were a major contributor to Lucent’s financial woes. By late 2002, 100,000 employees were laid off and its stock sank to $1. The SEC accused Lucent of improperly booking $1.1 billion in revenue in 2002.

In short, disastrous as Fiorina’s tenure at HP was, she’s fortunate that it distracts people from her even more destructive record at Lucent. But the broader point is that such a results-only focus is deeply damaging to a whole corporate culture, even when less overtly toxic. He explains:

The experience of Carly Fiorina demonstrates that, when it comes to moral management, there is no neutral ground. Unethical leaders actively promote immoral behavior; ethically neutral leaders foster unethical organizational climates through neglect.

This was Fiorina’s legacy. In the discussion section, he summarizes:

Fiorina acted as an ethically neutral leader who gained a reputation for being self-centered. She was perceived as lacking compassion, integrity, and humility. Her focus on the bottom line and individual rewards weakened the firm’s ethical culture.

It’s ironic that “character” used to be the conservative’s favorite club for bashing progressives, and crafting an individualistic narrative that downplayed or ignored systemic factors. Nowadays, its conservatives whose character defects are most glaring, and most directly related to the larger social problems we face as a nation.

Compared to Fiorina, the problems with Ben Carson are relatively easy to grasp: He’s yet another example of a “black conservative” superstar who’s dramatically out-of-touch with the vast majority of black America—and thus the perfect vehicle for white conservatives to diss African-Americans as an entire people, while at the same time pretending not to be racist.

What’s particularly notable about the “black conservative” superstar is his denial of racism, a central example of how his thinking reflects the white conservative audience he plays to, and how alien he is to the actual black conservative tradition, dating back to its origins with Booker T. Washington. While white conservatives seeking a “some of my best friends are black people” figure find this deeply appealing, everyone else should not: The fact that Carson is profoundly out of touch with the vast majority of people whose lives, concerns, hopes, fears, and aspirations he should be most in tune with makes him even more ill-suited to lead any broader polity.

It's true that unlike others, such as Hermain Cain or Allen Keyes, Carson’s distinguished career as a neurosurgeon has earned him broad respect in the black community. But that only makes his recent emergence as a darling of white conservatives all the more painful in many quarters. In May, Pulitzer Prize-winner Cynthia Tucker Haynes analyzed the situation expertly in a piece bluntly titled, “Ben Carson Is In Danger Of Losing All Respect.” She began by noting that Carson has a diverse legion of admirers over his decades-long career as a brain surgeon, and rightly so:

His story is the stuff of legend, the awe-inspiring tale of a poor black boy in Detroit who overcame daunting obstacles and vaulted to the very top of his profession.

Given that his profession was pediatric neurosurgery, black Americans were particularly proud. Carson, who was the first surgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins attached at the head, stood as stark repudiation of invidious stereotypes about black intellectual capacity. His memoir, Gifted Hands, has been passed through countless black households.

But then she warns that Carson’s presidential run puts all of this at risk, threatening "to become his epitaph,” overshadowing all that he has achieved:

He will likely be remembered as the GOP’s latest black mascot, a court jester, a minstrel show. He’ll be the Herman Cain of 2016.

She notes that Carson has no chance of winning the GOP nomination, but is a darling of hardcore conservatives. It may be unfathomable why Carson is running, but it’s painfully clear where his popularity with the white conservative base comes from:

Carson catapulted to stardom in the ultraconservative firmament in 2013, when he addressed the National Prayer Breakfast with a speech in which he lashed out at the Affordable Care Act as President Obama sat nearby. Though the breakfast has a long history of nonpartisanship, Carson chose to criticize many of the policies that the president supports, including progressive taxation.

That was enough to cause conservatives to swoon. Since Obama’s election, Republicans have been sensitive to charges that their small tent of aging voters has become a bastion of white resentment, a cauldron of bigotry, nativism and fear of the other. They want to show that their fierce resistance to all things Obama has nothing to do with race.

That promotes a special affection for black conservatives who are willing to viciously criticize the president. As with Cain before him, Carson garners the most enthusiastic cheers from conservative audiences when he’s excoriating Obama, the most rapturous applause when he seems to absolve them of charges of bigotry. Why would Carson trade on his reputation to become their token?

There really is no good answer to this. “He grew up Seventh-Day Adventist, a conservative religious tradition,” Haynes writes, and he has adopted the white conservative view “that black Democrats give short shrift to traditional values such as thrift, hard work and sacrifice.” But then she points out that “Carson hardly represents the long and honorable tradition of black conservatism in America,” which has always “had a healthy appreciation for the reality of racism in America,” whereas Carson has compared Obamacare to slavery. More generally, she notes, “black conservatism has promoted self-reliance, but it hasn’t been a font of right-wing intolerance and know-nothingism.”

And so we are ultimately left with an enigma. There is no clear logic as to why Carson would put his reputation so at risk. But the reason he’s as competitive in the race as he is? That much is crystal clear: It’s a powerful way for today’s crop of racists to portray themselves as totally free of racism. The more fervently they embrace him, the more they prove their claim is a lie.

It is worth noting that before he became a conservative icon, Carson had some distinctly heretical views. In a 2009 interview with Mega Diversities, Carson said:

"The first thing that we have to recognize is that in the US we spend twice as much per capita for health care as the next closest nation…. The entire thing is completely out of control. The entire concept of for profits for the insurance companies makes absolutely no sense. 'I deny that you need care and I will make more money.' This is totally ridiculous. The first thing we need to do is get rid of for profit insurance companies. We have a lack of policies and we need to make the government responsible for catastrophic health care. We have to make the insurance companies responsible only for routine health care.

If this doesn’t quite put him in Bernie Sanders territory, it surely puts him to the left of Obama. Now, of course, he’s compared Obamacare to slavery. And conservative plaudits have followed.

The day after the Prayer Breakfast speech in 2013, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial, “Ben Carson for President,” Two weeks after the Prayer Breakfast speech in 2013, a Media Matters post, “Ben Carson's Moment,” marked the unfolding dynamic:

Dr. Benjamin Carson is the latest in a long line of black conservatives -- from Clarence Thomas to Herman Cain -- relentlessly promoted and propped up by right-wing voices in the media. After Carson used a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in front of President Obama to trumpet conservative arguments about economics and health care, News Corp. properties rushed to anoint him as the newest political "star." Fox News and Fox Business hosted Carson eight times in the days following his speech, and he has been praised by Fox personalities as a courageous leader who is "saving America" and by the Wall Street Journal in an editorial headlined, "Ben Carson For President."

What made Carson “presidential” were two 1990s-era ideas Carson trotted out: medical savings accounts, and a flat tax.

A year later, in April 2014, a Media Matters post by Oliver Willis ran down “6 Things You Should Know About Conservative Media Darling Dr. Ben Carson,” which remains a good introductory guide.

Two tendencies appeared in these examples: First, Carson’s sweeping acts of moral judgment, reducing complex, contentious issues to simplistic matters of good versus evil. Second, his reflexive tendency to blame-shift, a key underpinning of all conservative victimhood narratives, also present in his invocation of slavery (as in “Obamacare, worse than”), a common thread in conservative blame-shifting narratives around race and claims of moral authority.

Over time, Carson has absorbed more and more of conventional rightwing narratives, and repeatedly boiled them down into these two formulas. Good-vs-evil narratives are commonly focused around abortion, as seen most recently in the deceitful videos used to try to defund Planned Parenthood. Carson’s recent involvement produced a deep unexpected contradiction, when Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN and a pain medicine physician, revealed on her blog that despite his categorical condemnations of fetal tissue research, Carson had actually done such research himself, citing a paper he published in 1992 (“Ben Carson did research on 17 week fetal tissue”). The contrast between Carson’s sweeping dogmatic certitude and Gunter’s detail-oriented, nuanced view of complex issues can be vividly illustrated by quoting the first three paragraphs of her post:

Dr. Ben Carson, GOP nominee hopeful, told Fox’s Megyn Kelly that “There’s nothing that can’t be done without fetal tissue” and that the benefits of fetal tissue have been “over promised” and the results have “very much under-delivered.”

Carson also said, “At 17 weeks, you’ve got a nice little nose and little fingers and hands and the heart’s beating. It can respond to environmental stimulus. How can you believe that that’s just a[n] irrelevant mass of cells? That’s what they want you to believe, when in fact it is a human being.”

Dr. Carson, like everyone, is entitled to an opinion no matter how wrong, What he says doesn’t change the fact that fetal tissue  plays a vital role in medical research. For example it is being used to develop a vaccine against Ebola. Many researchers depend on fetal tissue to understand and hopefully develop treatment for a myriad of conditions from blindness to HIV. Without fetal tissue neurosciences research, something essential for the development of neurosurgical techniques, would be far less developed. Dr. Carson should be intimately aware of this fact.

When the Washington Post interviewed Carson about his research the next day, Gunter posted a followup, "Ben Carson has still not answered the right questions about his fetal tissue research," in which she wrote:

Defending his work, he told David Weigel,

“If you’re killing babies and taking the tissue, that’s a very different thing than taking a dead specimen and keeping a record of it.”

But the tissue he used was from an abortion. That is what the Materials section says. It doesn’t say when but it says what. That abortion might have happened 10 years before and it is true the tissue could have been retrieved from a tissue bank and so not obtained for his specific study, but how exactly does Dr. Carson think it got into the tissue bank in the first place? His response makes no sense at all.

The incoherence of Carson’s response was noted here at Salon by Simon Maloy:

I’ve read through Carson’s statement several times and I’m still not entirely sure what he is trying to say. Thankfully, I don’t seem to be the only person who is baffled by his attempt at explaining this. The Post’s Amber Phillips writes that Carson seems to be alleging that Planned Parenthood is performing abortions specifically so that fetal tissue will be available for medical research, but that’s an allegation that “Planned Parenthood has flatly rejected and isn’t proven by the videos.”

At the very least, Carson is trapped in an inconsistency and he’s having a great deal of difficulty explaining it. And while that doesn’t make Carson look particularly good, his involvement with fetal tissue research and his tortured defense of it  also cause problems for the other candidates and conservatives who are trying to demagogue the issue.

The problem with trying to pretend science is on your side when it isn’t—which is part of Carson’s over-all appeal—is that it inadvertently makes your ridiculous anti-science claims subject to a stickier kind of scrutiny than anti-science liars are accustomed to dealing with. As Maloy goes on to observe, “It’s tough to make the political case that the donation of fetal tissue for medical research is un-American and potentially criminal when celebrated physician and conservative hero Ben Carson is complicit in the act.”

But then it gets even worse, Maloy notes, as “Carson’s defense of his involvement with that research ended up turning into a broader defense of fetal tissue research and the role it has played in advancing medical science,” ultimately articulating “a compelling moral case for fetal tissue research, and it’s coming from a Republican presidential candidate.”

Ouch! To misquote Talking Heads, “This is not my beautiful black conservative superstar.” No, not at all.

In contrast to Fiorina and Carson, Kaisich is a tried-and-tested politician. His number one problem is that—contrary to the popular “base vs donor” narrative—his style of practical, let’s-get-something-done conservatism is no more popular with the donor class than it is with the activist conservative base. The signature—but by no means sole—example of this was reported by Politico:

Kasich’s temper has made it harder to endear himself to the GOP’s wealthy benefactors. Last year, he traveled to Southern California to appear on a panel at a conference sponsored by the Republican mega-donors Charles and David Koch. At one point, according to accounts provided by two sources present, Randy Kendrick, a major contributor and the wife of Ken Kendrick, the owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, rose to say she disagreed with Kasich’s decision to expand Medicaid coverage, and questioned why he’d expressed the view it was what God wanted.

The governor’s response was fiery. “I don’t know about you, lady,” he said as he pointed at Kendrick, his voice rising. “But when I get to the pearly gates, I’m going to have an answer for what I’ve done for the poor.”

The exchange left many stunned. About 20 audience members walked out of the room, and two governors also on the panel, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, told Kasich they disagreed with him. The Ohio governor has not been invited back to a Koch seminar — opportunities for presidential aspirants to mingle with the party’s rich and powerful — in the months since.

While Politico framed this in terms of temper, it’s hard to imagine any tone Kasich could have taken to get that crowd to swallow his serving of “compassionate conservatism.” Conservatives today simply don’t believe in that anymore—well, except for Donald, perhaps. But he’s not a “real conservative” after all.

But even if Kasich could somehow jump that impossibly high hurdle, there’s another problem he’ll have to face sooner or later, and that’s his decidedly mediocre economic record as governor.

In June, the Columbus Dispatch reported, "Ohio’s economy strongest among Great Lakes states but lags U.S." Specifically, Ohio’s economy grew by 2.1% compared to 2.2% for the US as a whole last year. “Ohio’s growth rate was the 18th best in the country last year,” meaning a third of the nation’s governors can claim a better record than Kasich.

But it gets worse. When it comes to jobs, Ohio is still well below its pre-recession high. As of May 2015, Ohio had just 96.4% of the jobs it had pre-recession, while the Midwest as a whole stood at 99%, and the national total topped 102.2%. Looked at another way, since Kasich took office, jobs are up 3.86% compared to 4.61% in the Midwest as a whole and 6.23% nationwide. As I’ve written about before Ohio under Kasich is mired in cronyism just like many other GOP-run states on the economic development front:

Months after after winning his gubernatorial bid in 2010, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed his very first bill into law, replacing the state’s development department with a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called JobsOhio that would “move at the speed of business.”

Critics slam JobsOhio for a lack of transparency. Although nearly all of its revenue comes from state liquor profits, JobsOhio is exempt from public records laws, its annual disclosures to the Ohio Ethics Commission are confidential, and state ethics laws do not apply to it…. In its first year, JobsOhio also pocketed nearly $7 million from five private donors, but the Ohio supreme court later ruled the group didn’t have to release emails or records detailing the sources of those donations.

JobsOhio has faced charges of political favoritism and pay-to-play. Its board of directors, hand-picked by Kasich, includes multiple donors to Kasich’s campaigns and employees of Kasich donors. The Ohio Ethics Commission also found that 9 of the 22 JobsOhio officials required to file financial disclosure statements in 2011 and 2012—including six of its nine board members—had potential financial conflicts such as holding financial stakes in companies that had received incentives from JobsOhio.

The national punditocracy might think Hillary Clinton is afraid of John Kasich, but with that kind of ethical swamp all around him, he could easily lose his own state by 10 points if he somehow pulled off a miracle, and became the GOP nominee.

So, that’s what the GOP debate winners look like—a failed, ethically challenged businesswoman, a professionally distinguished but politically confused and incoherent “black conservative” superstar, and a mediocre, ethically challenged governor. Proving once again that the narrative of the GOP’s “deep bench” this election cycle is nothing but a pipe dream.

Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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Ben Carson Carly Fiorina Donald Trump Gop Debate Gop Primary John Kasich The Republican Party