Onetime Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) Chief Executive Carly Fiorina has found a new calling. One of the country's most prominent business executives, Fiorina has been on the campaign trail in recent months, stumping for Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) in key states such as Iowa, Florida, and Michigan. Now, she's taking on a bigger role as campaign officials—at least on the Republican side—turn their attention to the general election in November. On Mar. 7, Fiorina was named the "victory chairman" of the Republican National Committee's electoral efforts. That will give her a high-profile role as a campaign surrogate for McCain.
Fiorina, who has frequently been rumored to be interested in moving into politics for the next stage of her career, spoke with Jane Sasseen, BusinessWeek's Washington bureau chief, about her new job, McCain's economic agenda, and what's ahead for the campaign—and herself—as the race unfolds. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.
How did you get involved with Senator McCain's campaign? Have you backed other candidates in the past?
Nope. I did some transition work for [California] Governor [Arnold] Schwarzenegger, and I've certainly contributed to the Republican party before, but John McCain is the first candidate I have publicly endorsed. And he's certainly the first person I've campaigned actively for. I've been doing it—well, I signed on with him about 18 months ago—so I've been through the ups and downs, and now the ups, and I did it because I think he is truly a unique leader. I think he is the right leader for our country at this time, and I think this is a very important election.
What convinced you of that?
I think he has genuine character, which has been tested over and over again and he has never been found wanting. I think he understands the world we're living in, both from a foreign policy perspective but also frankly from an economic perspective. I think the 21st century is a very different time for America, and I think the choices we make about our role in the world and the choices we make about our economy really matter. And I think there are clear differences.
How so? What do you see as the biggest difference between McCain and his Democratic rivals, in terms of issues that are important to business?
Well, I think John McCain and the Republican party believe that you put money and choices in the hands of people, not in the hands of government. That's as simply as I can say it. And I think from a foreign perspective or a foreign engagement perspective, John McCain supports free trade, and so do I, because it creates jobs and it creates growth for this country. The Democrats are clearly becoming more protectionist with each passing speech. And either Democratic candidate has said very clearly that they will withdraw our troops from Iraq and signal defeat and surrender. And neither John McCain nor I believe that's the right thing to do. We can win in Iraq, and we should.
What exactly will your role be within the RNC and campaign? It's been described as fund-raising as well as working with McCain to help broaden his economic message.
Specifically, my role is to be the primary advocate for John McCain and for the Republican Party. Certainly there are a lot of people who are engaged in fund-raising who are more expert at it than I am. My role primarily is to advocate and communicate with the American people about the candidate and the party. And certainly I have a business background and understand economics, and so I will be engaged in that part as well.
Will you be primarily targeting the business community?
No, as broadly as possible, actually. Certainly the small business community is a very important focus for us, but more broadly—to young people and women and Hispanics, Asian Americans, African Americans. This is a general election, after all—and we've moved on to the general election.
McCain's economic program is very closely aligned with President Bush's economic policies, and it seems largely to consist of calls for continued tax cuts. Given the broader concerns about the health of the economy, the rising costs of health care, the housing and financial crisis, does he need to differentiate himself more from the President's programs and develop a broader economic message?
Having been on the campaign trail with him for quite some time, and having known him since 2000, I actually think what we need to do is make sure people understand his complete economic message and philosophy, as opposed to craft a new one. First, John McCain is focused on innovation. And in this regard—this is what originally attracted me in the year 2000—he truly understands how government policy can incent innovation, or can kill innovation.
So, for example, he has argued that we should make the R&D tax credit permanent, and he has argued that for quite a long time. He would ban taxation on the Internet and mobile technologies permanently. He is focused on climate change as a reality, and this is a clear difference with the Bush Administration in the past, but he sees climate change as an opportunity for innovation, to create a whole set of innovative industries around green technologies.
John McCain has been focused on fiscal discipline for many, many years, and that's not just a policy issue. John McCain has never asked for a single earmark in his 20-plus year career. Because he knows that putting that kind of money in the hands of government takes it away from families and businesses. He also has called for accountability and transparency. And that's particularly true in this current housing crisis. There hasn't been enough of either. There hasn't been enough accountability or transparency in terms of the financial instruments that were put in play by investors and bankers, in part to make money. I mean, a housing bubble was created that is very similar in many ways to the technology bubble of the late '90s. And unfortunately hardworking Americans get hurt in that.
Let's talk about immigration. Much of the Republican Party has a much harsher view on immigration than McCain has had, and certainly than many people within the tech sector and the business sector have. First, how much of an issue is that going to be, and does the anti-immigration sentiment within the party diminish support for McCain or the Republican Party among the business executives you talk to?
It is a hugely emotional issue. But John McCain showed great courage as well as great pragmatism in giving people straight talk in saying we need a comprehensive solution to the immigration problem. He also knows, however, that the American people have lost faith in their government's ability to follow through on its promises, in part because of Katrina and other issues.
So he has said we're going to have to convince the American people that we're serious about securing the borders—and secure them. He has asked that the border state governors certify that the borders are secure. And then, and only then, can we go on to tackle the subject of comprehensive immigration reform. He would immediately deport those illegal aliens who have broken our laws, but he would pull the rest of our illegal aliens out of the shadows by having a real temporary worker program that would require tamper-proof temporary IDs, he would prosecute employers who fail to follow the law on a temporary-worker program to the fullest extent of the law. He would return those temporary workers to their home countries on a regular basis, and if they wanted to become American citizens, they would go to the back of the line and they would have to learn English.
A lot of business executives I talk to feel that kind of program would take a very long time to put in place and that this approach wouldn't provide them, or the U.S. economy, the workforce they need.
First of all, I feel for them. Every business leader that I talk to recognizes that we must move forward from the situation we're in now. The situation we're in now is that people either collectively have their heads in the sand about the need to find a solution or people are put in the position where they are risking breaking the law. That's an untenable position for everybody.
If you look at the history of past elections, when the economy goes bad, the incumbent party gets blamed and turned out of office. With the U.S. facing recession, that's a key reason many analysts say that the current situation favors the Democrats come November. When you're talking with donors and business executives, what pitch do you make to them to overlook that history and back McCain?
First, I would say conventional wisdom has been consistently wrong in this campaign. On both sides. So I think we need to look to the realities. And I think most businesspeople that I talk to think that John McCain has a very good chance of winning, and that's what everyone's polls say.
When the economy is going bad, food prices are increasing, gas prices are increasing, do you want your taxes to increase as well? I don't think so. When American businesses are struggling to compete around the world, do you want to continue to pay the second-highest tax rate in the world? I don't think so. When you're struggling to figure out how to pay for health care and send your kids to college at the same time, do you really want your government making those choices for you? I don't think so. When times are tough, do you want more money in your own pocket and more power to make your own choices or do you want less money in your own pocket and less money to make your own choices? I think it's a pretty clear choice.
On economic issues, what other business executives does McCain consult with? Does he have a "Kitchen Cabinet" among executives?
I don't want to say that he has a Kitchen Cabinet, a group of people that he huddles with all the time, but he has broad support within the business community. Just to name a few: [Merrill Lynch CEO] John Thain, [Cisco Systems CEO] John Chambers. These are two executives who have been with him for a very long time. We just announced [eBay CEO] Meg Whitman is joining us as co-chair to his campaign.
Much of the energy in the race so far as been on the Democratic side, and that's been reflected in the fund-raising totals as well. What will you need to do to reverse that trend and crank up the fund-raising on your side?
Obviously we need to raise more money, we're very focused on raising more money. John and others have been out broadening the base of people we talk to and communicate with, and I think you'll continue to see that happen. But I'm also not concerned about generating excitement on our side. If you just step back for a moment, the Republican National Committee has been able to raise far more money than the Democratic National Committee, so if you put all the money in, I think we stack up better than it would appear if you're just looking at the candidates. Now that we have a nominee, and now that the contrasts are so stark between our nominee and whoever the Democratic nominee is, I think you'll see lots of energy.
If McCain wins, where do you yourself going? What role is ahead for you in a future Administration?
You know, I signed on not for something in the future, I signed on because I think this election is important and that's what I'm focused on right now.
There have been various rumors out there—that you might become Secretary of Commerce, even Secretary of State.
I'm not going to comment on them. People can talk all day long, but I'm not adding to that conversation.
Is it true you considered a run for governor of California?
I have not considered that in the past.