Last week’s GOP debate again reshaped the field of candidates vying for the Republican nomination. Political pundits and polls largely agreed that Carly Fiorina is on the rise while Jeb Bush is fading as voters look towards outsider candidates.
But beneath the headlines, Carly Fiorina made a subtle shift in how she defines herself as the only female candidate in the field for the GOP nomination. It was a shift that may have been forced by supporters outside of her campaign.
CNN made a point of highlighting both personal and political differences between the candidates during the debate. The most prominent personal conflict was the spat between Donald Trump and Fiorina.
The feud began after Trump, the real estate billionaire turned outsider political candidate who is known for his brand of political incorrectness, criticized Fiorina’s looks in an interview with Rolling Stone:
“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?! I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not s’posedta say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?”
Before the debate, Fiorina brushed off Trump’s insult. When asked by Megyn Kelly to respond, Fiorina simply acknowledged that the voters helping her rise in the polls really were serious. Pressed further about Trump’s criticism of her looks, Fiorina sidestepped again and asserted that her rise in the polls is what is getting under the skin of The Donald.
But supporters of Fiorina took a different approach. After the political commentariat derided Trump’s comments as sexist, Fiorina’s Super PAC responded to Trump with an ad entitled “Faces”,
The political class applauded Team Fiorina for standing in the face of Trump’s sexism with headlines like “This Carly Fiorina ad is the perfect comeback to Donald Trump’s sexist insults” and “In Your Face! Carly Fiorina Responds to Donald Trump’s Insults About her Looks in a New Campaign Ad”.
Reports also glossed over the fact that the ad came from a Super PAC instead of Fiorina’s campaign, assuming that the divide between outside groups and campaigns is so small as to be nonexistent.
This teed up the most prominent contrast CNN sought from the candidates. Shortly after the debate began, Jake Tapper threw Fiorina the pitch, asking for her direct response to Trump’s comments.
Clips from the post-debate analysis and reports in the following days would only show the moment when Fiorina laid the hammer on Trump. Without directly condemning Trump, Carly dismissed his comments from the perspective of all women.
“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”
But watching the debate live led me to question Carly’s enthusiasm for taking on Trump. For a candidate who won on style all night and whose convictions showed in every response, she hesitated when given the Trump softball question.
She touched her lip, looked down, and first pivoted to how “Mr. Trump said that he heard Mr. Bush very clearly,” as if she needed a moment to grab her hammer. Then when the moment passed, she paused and stared emptily into the crowd, displaying the gap between what she wanted to say and what the crowd wanted to hear.
In predictable fashion, Fiorina was again praised from the left for taking down Trump. Emily Bazelon said on the Slate Political Gabfest that she experienced a “feminist moment” with Fiorina. Huffington Post praised the heels that Fiorina wore while she “put Donald Trump in his place.”
But Carly hasn’t always been a feminist political champion. In fact, she’s largely been critical of using gender as a strategy to win votes. Her website states that it’s time to end identity politics. She’s argued that Democrats treat women like an interest group and pit them against men in the pursuit of winning elections.
From a policy perspective, she opposes proposals seen as particularly beneficial to women. She’s against a federal mandate for paid family leave. She would repeal the Affordable Care Act. And in her most impassioned moment in the second Republican debate, she claimed that the recently released videos targeting Planned Parenthood’s role in fetal tissue research included footage of a live fetus kicking while a doctor discusses a procedural change meant to “harvest the brain”.
Fiorina’s momentary hesitation to slam Trump may be reflective of her hesitancy to carry the feminist banner as the first woman to become president of the United States.
But it also reveals the potential downside for candidates supported by outside money. While coordination between campaigns and their supportive Super PACs is legally prohibited, its is generally assumed that the actions of a PAC represent the interests of the candidate. In this case, it appears plausible that Carly for America may have gone out front of Carly for President, boxing the candidate into being more aggressive in her female-focused messaging than she otherwise would have been.
As the field thins and supporters of vanquished candidates look for someone new, how the Fiorina campaign frames her gender in this race will tell us what the campaign understands about the Republican primary electorate. Would a gender-based rationale help her gain the marginal support from Republican women she needs to secure the nomination? Or will an older and majority male primary electorate deter Fiorina from being the “woman’s candidate”?
Fiorina’s speech kicking off her campaign made this seem like an irrelevant question. But because of her Super PAC and Donald Trump, her answer may determine the fate of her candidacy.