By David M. Shribman
WDRB Contributor from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
DES MOINES, Iowa -- The nexus of conservatism and populism is not Donald Trump, who last week added nativism to his portfolio. It is not Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is surging in the polls here this month. Nor is it Ben Carson, whose minute-waltz of fame seems to have faded on the Iowa dance floor. It's a onetime Silicon Valley executive who led the largest high-tech company in the world and now is inveighing against "the powerful, the wealthy, the well-connected."
This is a presidential campaign where it is never possible to say you have seen or heard everything, which is why Carly Fiorina's drive for the Republican nomination is stereotype-breaking and perhaps even groundbreaking. She's nowhere in the polls, but somehow at the center of what the 2016 race is all about.
When someone with Fiorina's profile -- former president of Lucent Technologies and CEO of Hewlett-Packard -- vows to "level the playing field between the big and the small, the powerful and the powerless," she's doing more than seeking attention in a Republican race with more than a dozen contenders, and more than seeking to create a niche for a campaign that has yet to find its place. She is reflecting strong currents in the national mood -- and new currents in conservatism.
She was reared in an age when the Republican creed was comfortable with commerce and when Republican politicians did the bidding of big business. The movement politicians of her youth -- Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee, and Ronald Reagan, the actor-turned-governor -- were masters of persuasive rhetoric. Yet they seldom aimed that rhetoric at the signature commercial enterprises of the world's largest capitalist nation. Reagan, after all, earned a good portion of his living as an after-dinner speaker and on-air host for General Electric, which hired him in 1954. That was the year Fiorina was born, at a time when GE ranked fourth in the Fortune 500 rankings.
But now Fiorina is traveling the country -- last week through this state, site of the first caucuses, and then on to New Hampshire, which holds the first primary, plus Georgia, anchor of the delegate-rich South -- with a message that is one part revival meeting ("We are all gifted by God"), one part patriotic anthem ("Here we judge an individual, not as a member of a group") and one part inspirational declamation (describing an America "where more things have been more possible for more people from more places than anywhere on Earth").
But always there is the sense of grievance about a system gone wrong -- one that chokes off opportunity and is controlled by the rich and the powerful -- delivered by a woman who has been a prominent beneficiary of the system and is, by any measure, rich and powerful herself.
This is, of course, part of a great tradition; rich and powerful men such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy sought to soften the hard edges of the economic system that built their rise. But that has been a Democratic irony, not a Republican ideology, which is why this year's Republican race is so distinctive.
Its principal driver is Trump, himself no up-from-poverty figure. As a result, the challenge for candidates such as Fiorina is to capture the resentment that is widespread in the electorate -- it also fuels the Democratic campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- but that has been the oxygen of the Trump phenomenon.
The two have the same soundtrack -- Trump's slogan is "Make America Great Again," Fiorina's is "Take Our Country Back" -- but a far different tone and timbre.
While Trump is bombastic, Fiorina is muted. While Trump is a symbol of plutocratic excess, Fiorina is a symbol of dignified restraint. While Trump redefines the outer limits of acceptable political discourse, Fiorina navigates the shoals with care. While Trump is emotional, Fiorina is undemonstrative.
Then again, Trump is at the top of the polls and Fiorina is in the lower middle ranks. She was at 3 percent in last week's Monmouth University poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers.
But make no mistake: Her campaign conversation sounds a lot like Jesse Jackson's, only with a conservative twang, though of course the onetime civil rights leader never complained about government being too big. That part of the Fiorina repertoire is, to be sure, a more traditional Republican play -- a theme at the center of Republican rhetoric since the Calvin Coolidge administration. Perhaps channeling Coolidge's successor, Iowa native son Herbert Hoover, born 120 miles east of here in West Branch, she complains about "a government with too much power that serves us less and less well."
The crowd in the American Enterprise office building in downtown Des Moines reacted to Fiorina with enthusiasm last week. "She gets good responses to her speeches, but it doesn't translate into poll numbers," says Dennis J. Goldford, a political scientist at nearby Drake University. "She's become an afterthought."
But clearly a lot of forethought has gone into shaping the Fiorina campaign, whose posters proclaim the three lodestones of this political season: "Conservative. Outsider. Leader." There's a lot of talk from her super PAC about on-the-ground organization, but political analysts here and in New Hampshire play down her efforts. Instead, she is emphasizing videos and graphics. In New Hampshire, which votes eight days after Iowa, she has invested $1 million in broadcast spots.
Fiorina takes comfort from "being tied nationally with a man who has spent $50 million on television," a swipe at former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida. But she and Bush are not really in competition; their campaigns have different targets. Indeed, it is difficult to repress the notion that she is competing against a candidate she's not running against in the GOP contest, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"I'm Hillary Clinton's worst nightmare," she says in one of her signature riffs. "You may not have decided whether to support me, but in your heart of hearts you want me to debate Hillary Clinton."
That's 10 months off, if ever. Meanwhile, a business executive arguing that business has too much influence in a government that is "too big, too complex, too costly, too corrupt" has a pitch-perfect message for the times. All she lacks are supporters.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
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