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Carly Fiorina runs as an outsider who can fix big DC problems — but her ideas are small

Former business executive Carly Fiorina speaks to guests gathered at the Point of Grace Church for the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition 2015 Spring Kickoff on April 25, 2015 in Waukee, Iowa.
Former business executive Carly Fiorina speaks to guests gathered at the Point of Grace Church for the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition 2015 Spring Kickoff on April 25, 2015 in Waukee, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Carly Fiorina announced her bid for the presidency Monday with a rifle-shot agenda that runs the political gamut, from a liberal's response to police violence in Baltimore to a conservative's plan for slashing annual federal spending.

The scattered and narrow approach will surely fuel speculation that the former Hewlett-Packard CEO is running to serve an ulterior purpose, namely positioning herself to be the Republican vice presidential pick if Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton, as expected. That theory of Fiorina's candidacy, supported by her sharp shots at Clinton, already has gotten enough ink to fill, well, an HP Inkjet cartridge.

For the time being, Fiorina's running for president, and she's proposing policies that, while hardly ambitious, would have real impact on Americans.

Few think she has a shot at the nomination or the presidency, in part because it's not obvious why she's running. She doesn't have a clear ideological lane in the GOP field. It's hard to label her brand of Republican politics — part technocrat, part budget hawk, part social policy individualist — and even harder to see how it garners her a constituency.

She's trying to run as an outsider on her (mixed) record as a businesswoman. She said Monday that there's a yearning for someone "outside the professional political class." But when up against a Republican field that has far more experience in government at the federal and state levels — and, in many cases, more fleshed-out policy prescriptions — it will be tough for Fiorina to prove she has the mechanics of governing down to implement Republican priorities.

The result is a candidacy built on a relatively conventional and small platform by a candidate whose chief claim to the presidency is that she hasn't spent any time in government. When asked what her top agenda items would be in the Oval Office, she responded first by saying, "I think it’s critically important now that we use technology to really reimagine government."

Fiorina didn't so much lay out a cohesive vision for America as tick through a few policy ideas in a conference call with reporters Monday. Here's why it's going to be hard for her to run on them.

The budget

Fiorina said that "zero-based budgeting" would be one of her top priorities if she were to win the presidency. That's aimed at a feature of the federal budget process that understandably drives conservatives nuts: Washington's use of "baseline" budgeting, which assumes spending increases for agencies each year based on inflation and other factors.

After long experience, Republicans know it can be politically difficult just to slow down the rate at which an agency's budget grows from year to year. That's because in DC's lexicon, a $1 billion increase in an agency's budget is considered a cut if its budget baseline projection was a $2 billion boost. Democrats hammer them for relatively minor "cuts" that are actually increases over the previous year's spending levels. So Republicans take a political hit even when they give a small raise to the State Department or the FBI.

Because that's the case, there's little incentive to give small raises and great incentive to go after big cuts. If you're going to take the political hit either way, might as well swing for the fences.

Many Republicans believe they, and the American public, would benefit from assuming zero spending each year and building the budget from there. Fiorina has subscribed to this theory, which would be expected to shrink spending.

If Fiorina's favored way of accounting were applied to mandatory spending — the part of the budget that funds the big eligibility-based programs — Medicare and Social Security recipients could be in for a serious budget squeeze. They are currently on "autopilot," meaning their cost changes each year to fully cover the new number of people who are eligible for them. If Congress set Medicare, Social Security, and other entitlement spending each year, it is likely that the overall pool of money would decrease and benefits for recipients would be limited.

But most proposals, including one Fiorina backs in the current Congress, would have a much less dramatic effect on spending. The House and Senate Appropriations committees, which oversee discretionary (annual) spending accounts, already have the power to boost and cut accounts each year as they see fit. The bill would require the appropriations committees to build the budget for each agency from zero each year, rather than considering the anticipated spending as a baseline. As it stands, the overall discretionary spending level is set by the annual budget resolution, and that top line is allocated among the various spending bills. These decisions are made every year.

That is, as nettlesome as baseline budgeting is for many Republicans, the proposals on the table wouldn't change much but the rhetoric surrounding spending. Of course, it also would take more than Fiorina fiat to change the baseline scoring system. It would take an act of Congress. And that's no small feat.

Outreach to friends, enemies, and Democrats

Among her top priorities if she wins the presidency, Fiorina said, would be to place calls to the leaders of Israel, Iran, and the Democratic National Committee. Obama has "made the world a more dangerous place" with his Middle East policy, she said.

The Obama administration contends that it has Israel's best interests at heart in negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran. The current round of talks has been underway for almost three years, and opponents of the deal haven't come up with an alternative plan of action.

Fiorina said her call to Israel would be aimed at shoring up that relationship and signaling to other nations that the US stands by its allies. The supreme leader of Iran, she said, would hear that economic sanctions would remain in place unless and until nuclear inspectors were allowed unfettered access to the country.

That's nothing new for the GOP. Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the House majority whip, said recently that Congress won't repeal sanctions on Iran — though a presidential waiver would at least temporarily ease them — and other Republicans have said they would like to increase economic penalties on that nation.

On the call to the DNC, there's a nice ring to the idea of bipartisanship by telephone or face-to-face meeting. President George W. Bush promised to be a uniter, not a divider. Obama vowed that he'd reach across the aisle, too. The truth is that as long as the country's as polarized as it is, phone calls are less of a solution than a start.

Building the economy

The key to improving the economy in America is supporting small and family-owned businesses, Fiorina said, charging that "we're destroying more businesses than we're creating." She's right about that. The birth rate of new businesses is lower than the death rate.

Fiorina's solution is no less familiar than it is hard to unpack: "Throttle back in a dramatic way the pile of complexity that they are having to deal with, and that means we have to tackle crony capitalism directly."

A pretty strong argument can be made for the idea that because of scale and because of special breaks and incentives, big businesses thrive on the complexity of tax and regulatory regimes. But an even stronger case can be made that those same businesses would do well with big tax cuts and the removal of regulations that are costly to them. The big lobbying coalition pushing for tax reform, called RATE, is chock full of the nation's biggest businesses.

The bigger question, though, is whether President Fiorina would have any easier of a time coming up with a tax reform plan than current Republican leaders. The House and Senate, both under GOP control now, have yet to produce a consensus bill overhauling the corporate tax code (much less one that also includes individual rates).

Fiorina said Monday that she favors reducing the top individual income rate, but emphasized that she'd want to do it in the context of broader tax reform. Good luck with that.

Breaking on Baltimore

Fiorina offered up a surprising reaction to the unrest in Baltimore after Freddie Gray, a young black man, suffered fatal injuries while in police custody. Going further than either President Obama or Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, Fiorina said that all police and police vehicles should be outfitted with body cameras.

Obama backs a pilot project for police departments to try out cameras, and Clinton has called for providing cameras to all departments.

Fiorina also praised the local prosecutor's decision to act quickly, rather than waiting for a grand jury indictment of officers accused of a variety of crimes in relation to Gray's killing.

"I think everyone was relieved to see the six policemen charged in Baltimore," she said.

Kudos to Fiorina for coming the closest so far to proposing a solution that might actually address the immediate problem of police shooting unarmed suspects. All of the candidates, including Fiorina, talk about the larger issues facing urban America. But poverty didn't kill Freddie Gray. The federal government gives so much money to state and local police departments that it has the leverage to require the use of body cameras by officers.

This could be done.

Okay, so this sounds like VP material

There is at least one way in which Fiorina sounds very much like someone running for vice president. She repeatedly portrayed herself as an agent for changing the way the federal government does business.

"The truth is technology permits us to engage people in the process of government," she said. She didn't offer much in the way of specifics, or how her administration would differ from Obama's on engaging the public. This, too, feels pretty small-bore for a president.

Two-time Vice President Al Gore may not have reimagined government through technology, but he did serve as President Clinton's point person on "reinventing government." And there was that whole Al Gore-invented-the-internet meme. (He actually supported funding for research and development and then tried to take a little too much credit for it in an interview leading up to his 2000 bid for the presidency.)

Gore's campaign-trail travails aside, Fiorina's willingness to take on a re-anything of government is very vice presidential.

All in all, it was a safe launch. But if Fiorina wants to be president, she'll have to find a way to distinguish herself from the field. Running on Republican boilerplate on a small, conventional issue set — mixed with the wrinkle of supporting government benefits for same-sex partners — won't do that.

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