Carly Fiorina's campaign to be the next Republican president – or failing that, the secretary of commerce in the next Republican president’s Cabinet, or maybe the director of the Office of Management and Budget, really, she’ll take anything to feel relevant again, has she mentioned she was the first female CEO of Hewlett-Packard? – continued Wednesday with a deeply hilarious phone interview on “Morning Joe” that had the show’s panelists either laughing at her or choking on their Starbucks coffee off camera. It was hard to tell.
“Morning Joe” is as good a place as any for an appearance by a Republican presidential candidate looking for a couple of softballs at which to swing. As they so often do, the crew of MSNBC’s flagship morning show didn’t disappoint. This meant no questions about Fiorina’s claims about the Planned Parenthood videos or her deeply weird statement that the undergraduate degree in medieval history she earned at Stanford 40 years ago qualifies her to lead the fight against ISIS. And yet, even with the fat pitches the panelists grooved down the center of the plate for her, Fiorina still managed to sound as if she has no idea what she was talking about.
The whole thing is nine minutes of hilarity as Fiorina tries and fails to sound some of the populist notes that have inflated Donald Trump’s poll numbers, while also attempting to sound like a competent executive with a plan and a Beltway outsider. Does anyone buy Carly Fiorina, she of the $42 million golden parachute that HP strapped to her back when it kicked her out of the Gulfstream she made the company lease for when she had to travel, as a populist sympathetic to the small businesses being crushed by the socialist tyrant Barack Obama?
But I want to focus on one exchange, because it exemplifies the way some of the GOP candidates have been scrambling over each other like puppies in the Puppy Bowl to present ever-more-awesome economic plans.
It started with Mark Halperin, looking disappointed that Fiorina hadn’t flown to 30 Rock in a helicopter and offered him a ride, asking her if she would pledge to submit a balanced budget in her first term. Now, this is a deeply silly question for lots of reasons, but it’s pretty easy for a Republican presidential candidate to answer. Just say you have a plan to lower the deficit by cutting spending while also cutting taxes to unleash the engine of American capitalism, which will result in so many dollar bills raining down on the Treasury, it will look like a Waka Floka Flame concert. The budget deficit will magically start dropping, and someday, maybe by the end of a second term, voilà! A balanced budget.
Instead, Fiorina said this: “Yes, and I think one of the keys to submitting a balanced budget…is starting by knowing where the money is being spent…Where I would start is to submit a plan for zero based budgeting…”
Picture the nation’s budget experts snapping to attention at once like a herd of buffalo hearing the distant hunting cries of a Native American tribe. Presidents haven’t used zero based budgeting since Jimmy Carter experimented with it in the late 1970s. That’s because for a concern as large as the federal government, ZBB is a deeply inefficient process. It requires managers to review and justify every single expenditure at the beginning of each budget cycle, so that different departments are competing for money on an equal basis. Federal Cabinet departments are simply too enormous to devote the time or the resources to such a process every year, mostly because by the time they finished, the next fiscal year would be starting.
Every once in a while, some congressman writes an editorial or introduces a bill suggesting the government start using ZBB again. It never goes anywhere, because while it might be a useful process for a technology CEO, it is a non-starter for a federal budget.
Fiorina’s balanced budget is not only based on an outmoded budgeting practice, it also would require spending cuts so deep you’d need James Cameron and his bathysphere to find them. And how Fiorina could reconcile cutting the budget that deeply while also keeping her past promise to build up our military to crush Vladimir Putin and every other American enemy is something that, alas, no one on “Morning Joe” thought to ask.
Granted, every presidential candidate in either party is going to shade his or her economic plans, emphasizing the miraculous possibilities while ignoring the practical questions they inevitably raise. It’s notable that the only other candidate who seems to have even approached a budget as absurd as Fiorina’s is Rand Paul, and even he only promised to balance the budget in five years.
But the Republican candidates seem engaged in a game of one-upmanship as to who can conjure the nuttiest economics out of thin air. Jeb! Bush’s plan promises four percent GDP growth indefinitely, a number that the economy has barely ever approached once, much less for four or eight straight years. Not to be outdone, Mike Huckabee blithely promised his economic plan would bring on 6 percent GDP growth. Marco Rubio has promised a balanced budget in ten years while restraining spending and implementing deep tax cuts that would rob the treasury of about $5 trillion in revenues over that time frame.
Now here is Carly Fiorina with a vague plan to cut her way to a balanced budget faster than anyone else while unleashing American business to drive the economy into the stratosphere. She might not have impressed the deficit fetishists of “Morning Joe,” but who knows. With the GOP base inclined to hoover up magic pixie dust like a Wall Street trader attacking a cargo hold full of cocaine, that’s a plus.