Barbara Boxer under pressure is like a reckless driver in traffic. She’s out of control and extremely careless. “You know, like, I don’t want to go back to the days when thousands of people died every day because they had no insurance,” she declared in a debate in late September. Boxer, as best one could tell, was referring to the era before President Obama’s health care plan was enacted.
If true, at least 730,000 people were dying annually in America for lack of health insurance. (To do the math, it’s a minimum of 2,000 deaths every 24 hours multiplied by 365 days.) That’s a staggering number of people who presumably couldn’t get life-saving medical care because they were without an insurance policy to foot the bill.
Boxer’s claim didn’t get a rise out of the questioners in the debate, a radio match between Boxer, the Democratic senator from California, in an NPR studio in Washington, and her Republican opponent, Carly Fiorina, at a public station in Pasadena. No one asked a follow-up.
After the debate, Boxer took questions from the media. (Fiorina did the same in Pasadena.) I asked Boxer for the basis of her claim. Without hesitation, she said it was reports, studies, things she’d read. She offered no specific citation.
That wasn’t the end of the matter. Boxer approached me in a friendly manner after the Q-and-A session, said she hadn’t seen me in a while, and said she remembered me from Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. She’d mistaken me for Morton Kondracke, my colleague as a Fox News commentator who indeed does write a column for Roll Call.
The senator briefly continued the discussion of deaths due to lack of insurance. I mentioned a study that concluded 40,000 people die annually because they aren’t insured. (At least one other study has put the death toll at zero.) But Boxer didn’t flinch. She didn’t back off from her claim. She left the press room, only to return about 10 seconds later. “Fred, did I say thousands a day?” she said. “I meant thousands a year.” It was a wise tactical retreat.
What should we draw from this episode? Three things. One, in the heat of a reelection campaign, Boxer will say just about anything so long as she can get away with it. And she usually can. Two, she is under extraordinary pressure from Fiorina, by far the strongest Republican candidate she’s ever faced. Three, Boxer is a tough, resourceful, and shrewd campaigner and not too haughty to correct a false statement when necessary to avert trouble.
Often that’s not necessary. Boxer, 69, makes so many dubious, untrue, hypocritical, or outlandish remarks in a single debate that most of them fly by without registering. Thank heaven for transcripts.
“Roe v. Wade, I believe, is a decision that brings us all together,” she said in the radio debate. That takes one’s breath away. Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision legalizing abortion, is the most divisive Supreme Court ruling since the Dred Scott case in 1857. It brings us together the way the Civil War did—in an angry fight with political ramifications that endure for decades.
“Sixty-two percent of our people were going broke due to a health care crisis,” Boxer said in the same debate. Again, she tossed out a large, highly unlikely number. “California is not a state that sits around and lets anybody else lead,” she insisted. This may have been true decades ago, but now California leads the nation only in fiscal irresponsibility, dysfunctional governance, and the mass exodus of the business class.
On immigration, “we have to stop this arguing,” she said. “We have to come together.” This is odd coming from a notoriously argumentative senator, one for whom the label “bitterly partisan” could have been invented. Boxer was removed last summer as lead senator on the cap and trade bill to clamp down on carbon emissions because she was too fractious to line up sufficient votes.
The stimulus? “It is creating jobs,” she said in the radio debate. “I have gone all over the state. Our Republican governor says it is creating tens of thousands of jobs and saving others.” Maybe, but the real numbers don’t lie. When the stimulus was passed in February 2009, the unemployment rate in California was 10.2 percent. Now it’s 12.4 percent. Only Nevada and Michigan have higher jobless rates. Boxer’s fallback position: Unemployment would have been even higher without the stimulus.
Boxer’s specialty is citing unverifiable and highly improbable numbers to back up her positions. She flings them out like confetti. The relatively innocuous bill passed last month to aid small businesses will create “500,000 to a million new jobs,” she said in her first and only televised, face-to-face debate with Fiorina. She also said she’s “fighting hard to make California a hub of a new clean energy economy and the millions of jobs that go with it.” Millions!
She has “many ideas” for reducing the budget deficit. Ending the war in Afghanistan “will be a trillion dollars,” she said in the radio debate. “Collecting from people who are ripping off the government and other uncollected payments to the government is another trillion dollars. Stopping tax breaks to the millionaires and the billionaires . . . that’s almost another trillion. So you go on and on.” Saving trillions!
Barbara Boxer does go on and on—10 years in the House seat north of San Francisco and 18 years in the Senate, where she replaced another liberal warhorse, Alan Cranston. Having won reelection in 2004 over Republican Bill Jones in a landslide, she appears to be an immovable object in California politics.
Appearances can deceive. In each of her three previous Senate races, there was a moment when Republicans thought they would defeat her. In 1992, the supposed electoral “year of the woman,” she benefited from a weak showing in California by the first President Bush and a calculated leak late in the campaign that Bruce Herschensohn, her Republican foe, had patronized a strip club. She won with 48 percent of the vote. Six years later, Boxer defeated state treasurer Matt Fong after he stumbled on the abortion issue, twice shifting his position. She won, 53-43 percent. In 2004, Jones’s challenge faded quickly. Boxer won, 58-38 percent.
From 48 percent to 53 percent to 58 percent—Boxer’s trajectory is impressive. It’s also misleading. Her negatives—40-plus percent of Californians view her unfavorably—have remained stable. She did herself no good last year when she chastised Brigadier General Michael Walsh at a Senate hearing for calling her “Ma’am” instead of “Senator.” Boxer said she called Walsh later to see if he was upset or owed an apology. “No, not at all,” she quoted him as saying. But what did she expect him to say to a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, whose influence on military issues could be crucial?
And she’s always managed to make her opponent the issue, not her own record. “She’s been a very lucky politician,” says Stu Spencer, the famed strategist who’s advising Fiorina.
In 2010, things are different. The first is Fiorina. She is the most attractive and best financed candidate Boxer has faced. Fiorina, 56, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, articulates the free-market alternative to liberal, statist economic policies better than any candidate I’ve seen this year. Her experience as a highly visible corporate executive in Silicon Valley has made her a poised candidate, a natural, though it’s her first run for office. This is a surprise, since ex-CEOs are usually poor candidates.
The “anti-incumbent, anti-Washington, antigovernment feeling,” as Spencer calls it, has produced a Republican tailwind, the likes of which Boxer has never encountered as a candidate. Her record is now an issue, big-time.
Fiorina benefits as well from Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor against Jerry Brown. Whitman, the former boss of eBay, not only has spent more than $100 million, but she’s funding much of the ambitious get-out-the-vote effort for Republicans. She is wooing the moderate center, while Fiorina “appeals to the [Republican] base more than anyone else on the ticket,” says Kevin McCarthy, the chief deputy whip for House Republicans. “To me, that brings synergy to both.”
The Boxer-Fiorina race is the single most important and symbolic event of the 2010 campaign. Republicans don’t require a Fiorina victory to gain 10 seats and take control of the Senate. But Boxer has a special status. She’s the epitome of 21st-century liberalism run amok. The aftershock of her ouster would be shattering. “It would have a tectonic effect as the Democrats sift through the rubble of the 2010 campaign,” says Ken Khachigian, the Republican consultant and speechwriter.
Three questions about Fiorina and her campaign remain. Does she have the moxie to stand up to a fusillade of vilification from Boxer? Can a pro-life conservative win a top-of-the-ticket race in the thoroughly blue state of California? And is Fiorina disciplined enough to keep the campaign focused on Boxer?
The day Fiorina was to deliver a speech to the California Republican party’s convention last year, her doctor told her she had breast cancer. She was stunned. She’d had a clear mammogram two weeks earlier. “I went home, told my husband, and we drove to the convention in Sacramento,” Fiorina says. The San Francisco Chronicle characterized her speech as “energetic.” She didn’t mention cancer.
It was February 2009. Fiorina was already considering a race against Boxer. For the next six months, however, she was out of commission. She had a double mastectomy, then radiation and chemotherapy until August. In October, her daughter Lori died at age 35. “It was a bad year,” Fiorina says. She announced her candidacy in November. Though her hair was just beginning to grow back, having fallen out during her cancer treatment, she refused to wear a wig.
“Nothing’s more terrifying than learning you have cancer,” she told me. “Nothing’s more horrifying than losing a child. . . . Those are hard things to go through. When you get through them, it makes you more compassionate, more humble, [and] it’s easier to hear people’s pain. You lose a lot of fear about things.”
Fiorina spent most of her childhood in California. Her father, Joseph Sneed, was a law professor at Stanford before becoming dean of Duke Law School, Richard Nixon’s alma mater. Nixon had fond memories of Duke and, as White House tapes obtained by Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee revealed, was pleased to learn from aide John Ehrlichman that Sneed was “very bright, very obviously quite conservative, a good Republican.” Nixon appointed Sneed a deputy attorney general in 1973 and a few months later nominated him to a seat on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Sneed served on the court for more than 30 years.
A law school dropout, Fiorina worked as a secretary, receptionist, and Kelly Girl. With a Stanford BA and an MBA from the University of Maryland, she was hired as a management trainee by AT&T in 1980 and had a meteoric rise through the company’s ranks. In 1999, she became Hewlett-Packard’s CEO and a highly publicized corporate leader. But in 2005, HP’s board removed her. Boxer contends that Fiorina’s record at HP, more than the senator’s own record in Congress, is a leading issue in the campaign.
“I was utterly devastated” over being fired, Fiorina wrote in her 2006 memoir, Tough Choices. “But the next day the sun still came up and life went on. . . . I know I will someday again find a cause to which I will commit all my passions.”
In 2007, she joined John McCain’s presidential campaign as a surrogate on economic issues. “I was so taken by his book,” Faith of My Fathers, she says. “His heroism and humility were really striking to me.” McCain staffers, however, don’t recall Fiorina’s appearances with admiration.
On a St. Louis radio show, she was asked if she believed Sarah Palin had the experience to run a major company. “No, I don’t,” she said. “But you know what? That’s not what she’s running for.” When she went on MSNBC to soften her comment, Fiorina was asked if McCain could run a big company. No, she said, he couldn’t either. After that, her surrogate appearances were kept to a minimum.
Fiorina’s role with McCain was, to put it kindly, a learning experience. But by the time she began her Senate campaign a year later, she’d improved dramatically in her ability to talk about issues smoothly and cogently. “There’s no, ‘uh, uh, uh,’ when she speaks,” Khachigian says.
“Practice helps,” Fiorina says. “It’s easier when you’re speaking for yourself. It’s hard to be a surrogate. I’ve done a lot of speaking. You get better at it.” George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times, who’s never had a soft spot for Republicans, surprised the Fiorina camp by praising her performance in the televised debate with Boxer. “Fiorina looked polished, in control and a master of details,” he wrote. “She seemed senatorial, a new face one could visualize in Congress.”
But it was Fiorina’s meeting with the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle that had a more tangible impact. She was never at a loss for words in the 52-minute session, persuasively defending her pro-business views. The editors couldn’t bring themselves to endorse a candidate as conservative as Fiorina, though they noted she “has campaigned with a vigor and directness that suggests she could be effective in Washington.”
That, by itself, was startling. Even more unexpected was the Chronicle’s failure to back Boxer, whom it had endorsed in 2004. “Boxer’s campaign, playing to resentment of Fiorina’s wealth, is not only an example of the personalized pettiness that has infected too much of modern politics, it is also a clear sign of desperation,” the editors said, words that could have come out of the Fiorina campaign’s playbook.
Boxer says the contest between her and Fiorina is primarily about jobs (“I’m fighting for those jobs every day”) and “presents one of the clearest [choices] in the nation.” She is right on both counts.
Her five-part “jobs plan” is something to behold. Incentives or private investment or profits—those are foreign ideas to Boxer. Instead, she favors punishing corporations and Wall Street and relying almost entirely on government for job creation. Boxer is oblivious to the problem with her plan: It’s been tried before and never worked.
She would “end tax breaks to companies that ship jobs overseas,” while providing “tax cuts for middle class Americans and businesses that are creating jobs right here in America.” The business community shouldn’t get its hopes up. She’s for increasing the tax on capital gains and dividends and has never advocated a lower corporate income tax rate. Boxer would “crack down” on Wall Street banks. For job creation, she is “working to make our state the hub for the new clean energy industry.” That means those elusive “green jobs,” subsidized by the taxpayers. She boasts about “leading the Senate committee that creates construction jobs in the private sector by making our roads and our bridges safer.”
The fifth plank aims “to get our deficit and our debt under control, and I support President Obama’s plan to do just that.” She doesn’t identify the Obama plan. If he has one at all, it’s insignificant. Obama is still spending, not cutting.
Fiorina treats Boxer as an economic illiterate. “There is an enormous difference between the two worlds that have shaped Barbara Boxer and me,” she said at the state GOP convention in August. “I come from the free market, free enterprise system that built up America and made us the greatest and most generous nation on earth. . . . Barbara Boxer is a lifetime politician who comes from the world of government, a world where she spends other people’s money, where productivity is never measured, where results don’t seem to matter, and where problems are not a factor.”
Boxer lives in an economic dream world, Fiorina says. “In business, we have, you know, facts, numbers, results. But somehow career politicians like Barbara Boxer seem to think that if they say it, it must be so.” On spending, Boxer is fuzzy. Fiorina would return spending to the level in 2008. “Start there,” she says, and cap increases in spending at 1.5 percent a year. Fiorina supports a variety of tax cuts, including a two-year payroll tax holiday for hiring the unemployed and special tax breaks for luring overseas jobs to America.
What Boxer doesn’t understand, Fiorina says, is that in a global economy “jobs can go anywhere.” America has “to fight for jobs” as never before—with China, India, and other countries—“and we’re not doing it.” High taxes and a “thick” set of regulatory burdens drive jobs away, she says.
Given California’s center-left tilt, Fiorina’s unswerving conservatism has amazed the media and even some of her own advisers. “She’s more conservative than we thought she was,” one adviser told me. After she won the primary—boosted by Sarah Palin’s endorsement—a lurch to the political center by Fiorina was widely anticipated.
It hasn’t happened, and not only on economic issues. She’s not a soft pro-lifer. Fiorina is for overturning Roe v. Wade. She’s a critic of gun control. She’s for “states’ rights.” She supports the Arizona immigration law. “Imagine this,” Dan Morain wrote in the Sacramento Bee, “In environmentally sensitive California, Carly Fiorina . . . supports offshore drilling and nuclear power, and hates the law that promises to reduce greenhouse gases.”
Fiorina isn’t demure in defending her views. Nor have the brutal TV ads by the Boxer campaign, roasting her for sending 30,000 jobs overseas when she ran Hewlett-Packard, fazed her. “If people watch me for more than five minutes, they realize that toughness is not my problem.”
A pro-life conservative hasn’t won a top-of-the-ticket race in California since George H.W. Bush was running for president in 1988. Fiorina thinks she can win in 2010 by focusing relentlessly on jobs and spending and Boxer’s hyper-liberal record, and avoiding abortion, guns, gay rights (she’s against gay marriage, for civil unions), the environment, HP, and hot-button social issues in general.
This is easier said than done. The media are no help. In the radio debate, Fiorina got five questions on abortion, three on the environment, two on guns. In the other debate, the moderator intervened to ask her about her severance package at HP, Roe v. Wade, assault weapons, and a ballot proposition on global warming. Boxer had to be pleased. These are the issues she wants to talk about.
Despite this, there’s a way a conservative can win in California. Khachigian calls it the “fishhook” strategy. You win Sacramento, the Central Valley, San Diego, and circle back to capture the collar counties around Los Angeles. If the strategy succeeds, you win by a small margin. There’s no room for mistakes.
Fiorina is a disciplined candidate. But her willingness to explain her position, sometimes at length, on issues other than Boxer, jobs, and spending may cause her trouble. Her target audience is independent, swing voters—roughly a quarter of the electorate—and she’s at risk of alienating independent women on abortion.
But if any conservative can win California, it’s Fiorina. And Boxer’s penchant, when under pressure, for saying just about anything may help. “I love the military,” Boxer said in the TV debate. That’s a whopper, both preposterous and laughable. A few more of those may put Fiorina over the top.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.