The Republican Party had two compelling debates Tuesday night. There was the primetime debate with everyone from Donald Trump to Marco Rubio to Ted Cruz. Preceding it was the “undercard” debate, where Lindsay Graham was a force of nature with three less popular Republican peers. The night—each debate—was dominated by one topic: the war against ISIS.
That topic was not misplaced. Given the terror attacks in Paris and in San Bernadino, Americans are worried. Terrorism has spiked on the list of issues important to Americans, and Republicans see the topic as an Obama and Clinton vulnerability. The discussion revealed something interesting about Republican candidates’ views about the war against radical terrorists: most candidates are not ready to lead.
There were 13 candidates on the two stages tonight. One showed an understanding of what a modern war requires, particularly the fight against ISIS. That candidate was Carly Fiorina. She talked about her experience dealing with the United States government’s technological needs in the days following the September 11th terror attacks. Fiorina explained that as CEO of Hewlett Packard in 2001, she and her company were asked to assist in terror investigations. She complied.
But Carly Fiorina brought more to the table. She spoke in detail and with expertise about the technological realities of modern society and how it relates to issues of communication, national security and combat. She spoke of the capacity of American tech and telecom companies to assist in government efforts to monitor phone calls, Internet activity, and social media. Fiorina’s position—that tech firms have an obligation to assist in combating terrorism—is not without controversy, even among Republicans. But, it’s a position that will connect with the Republican base, with Independents, and with any American terrified by the threat of ISIS in their hometowns. To capitalize on that, she showed a firm stance and a record of experience that set herself apart from all of the men she stood beside on stage.
What was she up against? Not much.
Fiorina faced off against Donald Trump who wants to “close the Internet.” Fiorina contrasted from a stage away from Mike Huckabee who lamented the size of our military, seemingly ignorant of the importance of technology (instead of boots) in modern war, as he flippantly noted he’s fine with 10,000 or 100,000 troops in Syria. Fiorina looked impressive when compared to Senator Cruz who was curious about making sand glow in the dark.
Polls show that America is too war weary to support huge, traditional ramp ups in old-fashioned war making. Yet, that wasn’t Fiorina’s angle. She approaches foreign policy from a modern, realistic, innovative approach. It is one you may not expect from an individual with no government experience, no record of military service and no direct foreign policy experience. She stood on a stage with people who have served on Armed Services Committees, dealt with war as members of Congress, and bragged about their war zone junkets. Fiorina is often accused of having a resume deficiency, but tonight she trumped everyone with her experience leading a tech firm.
It was clear. Carly Fiorina looked like an individual ready to be commander-in-chief, overseeing a war in 2016. She stood beside a group of men ready to manage a war in 1920 or 1940.
There is a deep irony in this moment. That irony is both historical and modern. Carly Fiorina is the Hillary Clinton of the Republican Party. In a crowded field of Republican candidates, a female candidate looked the most prepared to be a wartime president. This defies traditional stereotypes within society and, especially, within government. She distinguished herself tonight as the foreign policy force among Republicans, much in the same way Hillary Clinton has done on a stage beside Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley.
Clinton and Fiorina have very different approaches to foreign policy, but they are locking arms, breaking down traditional, diminishing views of women in elected office. Neither would admit the similarity. But stages of men have allowed these women to crystalize themselves as the foreign policy minds of their parties.
Fiorina’s moment may be viewed as her invocation of the archetype of a powerful woman in politics: Margaret Thatcher. That would be a mistake. Her strongest words, her starkest contrast, her most powerful moment was easily missed. It was a single attack that swept up Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul an a maelstrom of belittling criticism. She browbeat “first term Senators who never made an executive decision in their lives.”
In one sentence, she showed strength, solidified her own experience, and (despite being an individual with no government service) showed herself to be more prepared to place her hand on a bible in January 2017. She essentially said, to beat ISIS, you can’t trust the young boy in the Senate, you need to support the woman who helped the government beat terrorism before. On the most important issue of tonight’s debate, Carly Fiorina showed herself to be the most prepared and modern candidate from the Grand Old Party.