Bill Whalen

In a strange presidential race, Fiorina could compete

Carly Fiorina campaigns for U.S. Senate at McClellan Business Park in Sacramento in 2010. Despite her defeat, she might seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Carly Fiorina campaigns for U.S. Senate at McClellan Business Park in Sacramento in 2010. Despite her defeat, she might seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Sacramento Bee file

Perhaps the holiday had you distracted, but last week it became pretty evident that at least one Californian will seek the presidency in 2016.

That would be Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, the failed 2010 Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in the Golden State and the subject of a persistent buzz about her White House ambitions. She could quickly end the chatter if she weren’t serious about taking the plunge (full disclosure: Fiorina’s also an overseer at the Hoover Institution, my place of employment).

Should she run and somehow win the GOP nomination, Fiorina would be looking at two precedents. One is not so encouraging: It has been nearly a century since a presidential candidate failed to carry their home state (Woodrow Wilson and New Jersey, in 1916). Then again, Richard Nixon showed that a Californian could lose a statewide race (1962 for governor), even say they’re done with politics, then later win the presidency.

Does that mean that Fiorina, like Nixon in 1968, “is the one” for Republicans in 2016? You’re better off betting on the field, simply because there hasn’t been a batch of GOP contenders like this in modern times.

The Hill, an inside-the-Beltway publication, came up last week with a headcount of no less than 13 possible contenders. That baker’s dozen doesn’t include 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, the party’s frontrunner in recent polls, or former Sen. Rick Santorum, who upended Romney in 2012’s Iowa caucuses, or a handful of GOP governors, all with mild-to-severe cases of Potomac fever.

What Fiorina can bet on is this: She’s the only woman mentioned so far as wanting to run on the Republican side, not to mention the only candidate in a Romney-less field with serious business experience.

Taken a step further, supposing Fiorina does well in GOP primary debates and manages not to miff the eventual nominee, she could reap a nice reward. If you doubt that, just ask Vice President Joe Biden, who ran a presidential campaign in 2008 that was more about landing a Cabinet post than knocking off Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama.

But that’s about all that 2008 and 2016 have in common – for both parties.

Assuming Romney doesn’t run a third time (as did Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown), there’s no obvious GOP frontrunner this time – just a glut of first-time candidates trying to break through. So much for Republicans’ usual approach to choosing a nominee: the runner-up from the last nomination fight, with the most money and best organization, making one last run. Ronald Reagan started that pattern in 1980. With the exception of George W. Bush, it’s held true for every nominee since.

That’s in contrast to the 2016 Democratic presidential field, where the prohibitive favorite was the runner-up in 2008 and would have far and away the most dollars, biggest network and a sentimental narrative that it’s her final hurrah.

Yes, Clinton is a Democrat seeking her party’s nomination in a most Republican way. That includes her age. Clinton turns 69 in 2016. One has to go 160 years to the election of 1856 and a 65-year-old James Buchanan to find a first-time Democratic nominee of similar age.

All of which is another way of saying that 2016 is shaping up as a non-conformist delight. Instead of Democrats falling in love and Republicans falling in line with the respective nominees, the opposite may hold true.

Then again, maybe it’s a good time for America to break its political pattern. We’re winding down on a unique period during which three presidents will have served two terms apiece (the only other time this happened was with Jefferson, Madison and Monroe in the first quarter of the 19th century). That’s three presidents, each of whom inherited a friendly Congress only to lose it to the opposition party.

The thought of Fiorina setting her sights on an office higher than the one that eluded her in California? Stranger things are bound to happen in what could be a very strange presidential election.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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