The Republican Party believes businessmen make good presidents. Last election the GOP championed Mitt Romney’s corporate experience as a meaningful indicator of his political acumen. Romney himself argued that we should have a provision in the Constitution that says the “president has to spend at least three years working in business before he could become president.”
This year we have Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina, both of whom have no relevant experience in government. Trump is a bit of a unique case, as his appeal to the nativist elements of the GOP has little to do with his business background. But Fiorina is different. More measured and prudent than Trump, Fiorina calmly argues that her successful tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard is proof of her political potential – it’s her primary justification for seeking the presidency. And Republican voters are buying it. According to the latest CNN/ORC poll, Fiorina now sits at second place following last week’s presidential debate.
There are a couple of problems with Fiorina’s argument. First, it’s a false trope that businessmen succeed in presidential politics. To begin with, a country isn’t a business, and overseeing a corporation and deciding national economic policy are not the same. Paul Krugman, among many others, has already explained why this distinction matters.
If you reject the claim that countries and corporations are fundamentally different, history offers other reasons to be weary of businessmen in politics. Two of the worst presidents in modern history, Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush, were former businessmen; their legacies are the Great Depression and the Iraq War, respectively. In 2009, historians ranked America’s presidents, and the results were unsurprising: Only one of the top 10 presidents, Harry Truman, had any business experience at all. Alternatively, many of the worst presidents – Warren Harding, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, and John Tyler – all had a successful background in business before seeking the presidency.
The other glaring problem with Fiorina’s story is that it’s totally false. Even if you accept that success in the business world translates to success in politics (and you shouldn’t), the fact remains: Fiorina was a terrible businesswoman. In the last presidential debate, Donald Trump referenced a study by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at Yale’s School of Management, which refuted Fiorina’s revisionist history of her time at HP. Fiorina, predictably, dismissed Sonnenfeld, saying he “had it out for me from the moment I arrived at Hewlett-Packard.”
Sonnenfeld responded yesterday in Politico by laying out the facts:
In the five years that Fiorina was at Hewlett-Packard, the company lost over half its value. It’s true that many tech companies had trouble during this period of the Internet bubble collapse, some falling in value as much as 27 percent; but HP under Fiorina fell 55 percent. During those years, stocks in companies like Apple and Dell rose. Google went public, and Facebook was launched. The S&P yardstick on major U.S. firms showed only a 7 percent drop. Plenty good was happening in U.S. industry and in technology.
Fiorina has said repeatedly that her struggles at HP were the result of her “challenging the status quo” and that she led the company through a remarkably difficult time. But, as Sonnenfeld notes, virtually everyone involved with HP at the time agrees that Fiorina’s tenure was an abject failure, as did “Forbes, Fortune, Business Week, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and leading tech industry journals.”
This is the record, whether Fiorina acknowledges it or not. Republicans, credulous voters that they are, have yet to question Fiorina’s resume. Indeed, because she sounds poised and impressive (which is the least you’d expect of someone with her experience), conservatives have flocked to her after the first two debates. This is depressing but not unexpected.
Fiorina, in so many ways, is a perfect fit in the new GOP. She plays fast and loose with the facts; she has a selective amnesia when it comes to her own failures; she distorts the record when it suits her; and she memorizes just enough details and platitudes to appear smart to stupid people (listen to her talk about foreign policy and you’ll see what I mean).
In short, Fiorina’s entire campaign narrative is a farce, and a rather obvious one. Among Republican voters, however, that won’t hurt her candidacy one bit. This is, after all, a party that believes George W. Bush “kept us safe” and that Obama caused the global recession, neither of which are true.
Fiorina, in other words, is right where she belongs.