John McCain's Veepstakes: Carly Fiorina

If John McCain were to appoint Carly Fiorina as his running mate, then the former Hewlett Packard chief executive officer and close McCain adviser would become the first vice presidential candidate of a major party who has held neither elective nor appointive office since Chicago Tribune publisher Frank Knox was Republican Alf Landon’s running mate back in 1936.

In recent weeks, there has been increased press speculation that McCain’s “bold move” will be to turn to the 53-year-old Fiorina for Veep. A recent press breakfast in Washington hosted by the Christian Science Monitor that featured the Stanford University graduate fueled much fresh “McCain-Fiorina” talk, including major feature stories in the Washington Post and the Financial Times.

“John McCain has a long list of highly qualified people and I’m honored to be mentioned,” Fiorina told me during a break from a campaign appearance for the Arizonan in Grand Rapids, Mich. “But I’m not doing this to run for office; I’m doing this because I think this is an extremely important election. I think we need a President of John McCain’s capability and character, and I think we need to make a choice that supports the fundamental values and approaches of conservative ideals to tackle our challenges and opportunities. That’s why I’m doing this.”

“Conservative” is an adjective that comes up often in conversation with Fiorina. She proudly calls herself “pro-life, conservative, and a lifelong Republican” Regarding a report by syndicated columnist Bob Novak that she had not contributed to a major Republican organization or candidate in more than six years, Fiorina told me, “My husband and I have a joint account, and we have consistently written checks to the Republican Party over the past six or seven years.”

From Stanford to Secretary to CEO

Until she joined McCain’s campaign team 18 months ago, Carleton S. Fiorina was known primarily for being one of the most high-profile women business leaders. Indeed, in the long-running “Martin Lukes” serial carried by the Financial Times, fictional corporate buccaneer Lukes says he named his daughter Carly after the increasingly famous chief executive officer of Hewlett Packard. In 2002, Fiorina guided her company’s merger with rival Compaq. Three years later, in a move that dominated the business sections of most major newspapers, Fiorina was forced out of the HP helm in a dispute with some of its directors.

Born in Austin, Tex., Fiorina pursued an unusual area of study at Stanford. Recalling how she received an undergraduate degree in Medieval History and Philosophy, Fiorina told me with a chuckle: “Some day we can discuss my thesis, researched in ancient Greek and Latin.”

After briefly attending law school, she dropped out to become a secretary at the real estate firm of Marcus and Millichap in Northern California — “down the street, coincidentally, from Hewlett-Packard,” she recalled. She said her work as a legal secretary “encouraged me to look at a business career.” After teaching English in Italy for a year, she went on to get a master’s degree of Science in Business from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She first worked as a secretary in the shipping department at Hewlett Packard during college then went on to work at AT&T and Lucent Technologies. She returned to HP as CEO in 1999. She had a meteoric rise to the top — and then a dramatic and well-publicized fall in 2005.

“I was fired,” she told me without hesitation, recalling a sharp conflict with some members of the board of directors. At a time when the company’s stock price had fallen, Fiorina was forced out of her job — albeit with an eight-figure severance package.

These days, Fiorina can claim vindication. As the Washington Post’s Matthew Mosk noted in reporting on the controversy swirling around HP and its former CEO, “But now HP has passed Dell as the No.1 laptop maker and the Compaq merger has become a success.” And, as Fiorina recalled to me, three of the directors who helped drive her out have since been fired for inappropriate conduct.

On Taxes and Entitlements

With former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm out of McCain’s campaign after some controversial remarks, I asked Fiorina if she was now the soon-to-be Republican nominee’s chief economic spokesman.

“It’s not my place to give myself a title,” she told me, “I am happy to provide advice on economic issues, and I’m happy to advocate on behalf of McCain’s economic plan, because I think it is as comprehensive as is his energy plan. I think it is a sound package of both tax cuts and spending cuts. I think it was what is necessary to get this economy growing again, so it was my great privilege to advocate on its behalf and his behalf.”

When I reminded her that many HUMAN EVENTS readers were upset with McCain when he opposed the Bush tax cuts and suggested at the time that they benefited those who earn the most, she told me: “I think it’s important to go back in history a little bit. Sen. McCain proposed his own tax cuts package at that time but he has always been a strong believer that tax cuts have to be accompanied by cuts in federal spending. And, indeed, if you look at the reality, federal spending has increased by some 60% over the last seven years. He knows that you cannot raise taxes, particularly in a bad economy. To eliminate the tax cuts would be, in essence, to raise taxes on everyone, including people making as little as $30,000 a year. He has proposed other tax cuts in addition to making the current tax cuts permanent. But he also believes that these have to be accompanied by a reduction in federal spending. Government spending is out of control in Washington.”

Fiorina added that McCain, “for right now, has said that he would keep the capital gains tax where it is at 15%. He certainly would not raise it as Barack Obama would, but he also has said that we must cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 25% because we have an uncompetitive tax structure in this country — second-highest tax rate in the world — and it is contributing to American jobs going over seas. There’s no question about it.”

We discussed Ireland and its low (12.5%) tax rate. Fiorina recalled her days as a CEO “when we moved jobs to Ireland because of that tax base and their education. So, yes, lower taxes work. No question.”

Vigorously underscoring that McCain plans to deal with the entitlements, Fiorina told me that one of the things she admires about the Arizonan is that “he will take on the tough problems. This is a war leader who demonstrated over the course of his life that he doesn’t run away from a hard problem. And so he has said that he will tackle entitlement reform in his first term. He will do so by immediately forming a bipartisan commission to look at how we can solve the problem of Social Security and Medicare. I also caused some controversy apparently by making a comment that I think there is today bipartisan consensus that we cannot raise taxes on the lower-income or middle class to solve the Social Security problem. I think there is also a reality that you cannot form a bipartisan commission to look at a tough problem if you impose too many conditions up front on what the nature of that dialogue will be. But Sen. McCain has had experience with, for example, the base-closure process, which worked very well and was bipartisan. And I think he will lean on that experience and tackle Social Security and Medicare. But he’ll absolutely take it on.”

What’s Next?

“What will Carly do next?” is getting to be one of the most popular games played on the dinner party circuit in Washington, where Fiorina and her husband have a second home, along with their residence in California.). The vice presidential speculation is well known and, in a response to a query from Susan Page of USA Today during the Monitor breakfast, Fiorina seemed open to other positions in a McCain Administration.

“I’ve spent the last three-plus years getting involved in a variety of issues,” she said, “in a variety of government departments, whether it’s the Defense Department or the Central Intelligence Agency or the State Department.”

Still others say, regardless of who is elected President, she will stay in California and run for governor in 2010, when incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger must step down.

For her part, Fiorina simply says: “One of the great things about my life right now is I have a lot of options and lots of opportunities. And I have learned that if you’re open to options and opportunities, the future takes care of itself.”