Surprise. The one woman in the crowded Republican field, Carly Fiorina, turns out to be articulate and well-informed, thoughtful and independent, actually the standout in the second-tier debate and really, if you’re judging, the best debater of the night.
Actually, many of the reporters covering the debate did appear a little shocked at how well she “delivered her lines,” which is not exactly how I’d describe it. She is the former CEO of a major Fortune 500 company. Donald Trump could not hold his own in a debate with her about the private sector economy — if she could get the chance, that is.
This is how the script should go: A little-known but articulate candidate turns in a strong performance, which gains her media attention as a potential contender, which then translates into financial support, which allows her to hire more organizers and build support in Iowa where finishing in the first tier would be considered respectable, given that Iowa, past the winner, is all about meeting or exceeding expectations.
And as the field narrows, the candidate gets more attention and becomes, at the least, a contender for the second spot. Getting from the very back to the very front is difficult, even if everything goes according to script, because the brutal primary schedule requires you have money early enough to be organizing already in multiple states, and later requires even more money to pay for media, while momentum takes time to build.
So is the script working for Fiorina? Does the debate become a springboard to move her at least into the top 10?
I hope so, not because she is my personal choice for president, but because I want to see women achieve more power and influence in both parties, and all other factors being equal (which of course they never are), I’ll always vote for the woman. When I don’t recognize the names of judge candidates, I pick out the women. How great it would be to have serious female candidates for president in both parties. An absolute first.
But not necessarily in the cards. Fiorina had a good ride for about 24 hours until The Donald took back the headlines with his asinine comment suggesting the reason anchor Megyn Kelly asked him tough questions was because she was menstruating. The joke, of course, is the questions weren’t lowballs or unfair in the least. She simply repeated back to him some of the offensive things he’d said in the past. At the very least, candidates are usually prepared to deal with their skeletons. But the Republican “frontrunner” (sorry, Republican friends, but that’s what the polls in Iowa say) was not.
So in the ultimate cruel irony, the one female candidate, who was poised to ride a wave of media attention for at least a few days more, has been knocked out of the story by the almost unbelievably anachronistic sexism of a competitor with no business in the race.
Which is really the bottom line. There are lots of reasons candidates run for president other than winning. Harvard Professor Larry Lessig has announced after a lifetime of activism for campaign finance reform, he is considering running for president based on small donations to bring the campaign finance issue to the forefront — something that is difficult for candidates who are literally raising billions of dollars to do. So good for him. Gene McCarthy, for those of us who can remember, never had a chance of winning the New Hampshire primary in 1968, but his better-than-expected showing forced President Johnson out of the race.
But a candidate who doesn’t have a chance to win should at least have some issue or cause that justifies distracting our attention and distorting the race. Ego should not be enough.
Susan Estrich is a columnist, commentator and law and political science
professor at USC.