In 2008, Sarah Palin was an appealing running mate to John McCain because she offered a potential antidote to the GOP’s insufferable white-maleness. On paper she looked promising, and on television she looked great, but problems started when she opened her mouth. In The New Yorker’s October 27 issue that year, Jane Mayer chronicled Palin’s rise to fame within the party—and then nationally, of course—concluding that it had a lot to do with her gender and little to do with her track record. (At that point, she had been governor for less than two years.) In 2010, writing in her New York Times opinion column, Maureen Dowd called Sarah Palin the GOP “Queen Bee,” a reference to her status among other women in the GOP.
Five years later, it seems the GOP has finally found a new Queen: Carly Fiorina. In 1999, Fiorina became a household name—at least in a certain kind of household—when she was named CEO of Hewlett-Packard, making her the first female head of a Fortune 20 company. (She was fired in 2005 after a series of scandalous leaks.) In 2008, Fiorina was one of McCain’s chief economic advisors, and Palin and Fiorina supported one another over the years: Fiorina defended Palin against “sexist attacks” in 2008; later, in 2010, Palin endorsed Fiorina’s campaign for Barbara Boxer’s California Senate seat.
Fiorina has sought to distance herself from Palin and from other Tea Party conservatives of late, though, including during her California Senate run. As 2016 looms, the GOP, too, has begun to shift: In their quest to find more politically viable candidates to put forward, it’s no wonder Fiorina has recently become a household name. (Again, in a certain kind of household.)
At first glance, Fiorina can be seen as an upgraded Palin, and she occupies a similar position in the party: Fiorina is a charismatic woman with enough success and outsider-status to plausibly appeal to conservative voters—and to possibly even attract new ones. In fact, in 2008 there was even speculation that Fiorina might run with McCain.
Monday night, during a Center For Strategic & International Studies-hosted “Smart Women, Smart Power” conversation with Carly Fiorina in the District, a sea of young women nodded in agreement at almost everything Fiorina said. They laughed at her jokes and interrupted her to applaud.
Fiorina has said that there’s a “higher than 90 percent” chance she will run for president, and many of last night’s questions pivoted on the topic. One woman was so eager she misspoke: “It’s January 2018 and you’re president-elect—”
“2017,” Fiorina corrected her.
Fiorina, for her part, did not misspeak on Monday night. One of her assets is her ability to stick with the script: It’s likely that Republican missteps—like Palin’s many historic gaffes, not to mention Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comment—have influenced many conservative politicians’ love for the perfectly planned media op.
Though she’s committed fewer blunders than Palin, Fiorina does have some obvious similarities to the former vice-presidential candidate. Both favor words like “outsider” and “tough,” and allow themselves to be cast as a woman who does it all: They’re breadwinner moms with business savvy and enough charisma to make their raw ambition palatable. Similarly, both women’s careers have been marred by major professional failures: Fiorina’s firing from Hewlett-Packard and Palin’s "bridge to nowhere" (which, ironically, Fiorina initially defended).
Just this week another similarity emerged. Fiorina told Glenn Beck that California's drought was a human-caused environmental disaster. “Despite the fact that California has suffered from droughts for millennia, liberal environmentalists have prevented the building of a single new reservoir or a single new water conveyance system over decades during a period in which California’s population has doubled,” Fiorina said. Palin, too, cited man-made climate change in a roundabout way in 2008. “You know there are—there are man's activities that can be contributed to the issues that we're dealing with now, these impacts. I'm not going to solely blame all of man's activities on changes in climate,” Palin told Katie Couric.
Yet the one thing that really unites Palin and Fiorina is their willingness to criticize Hillary Clinton. When news of Clinton’s private email server broke last month, both Fiorina and Palin attacked the former Secretary of State—Fiorina on Twitter and Palin in an op-ed for Fox News. Palin was expected to “siphon off” Clinton supporters in 2008, Jane Meyer wrote. Fiorina, too, has been hailed by the right for her recent remarks on Hillary Clinton: “No other potential 2016 contender was tougher on Hillary Clinton than Carly Fiorina at CPAC,” the Daily Signal wrote.
Because of their similar roles in the GOP, Fiorina and Palin invite comparison. With Fiorina lagging in the polls, though, it doesn’t seem likely that she’ll do much better in 2016 than Palin did in 2008—even if Fiorina loses more gracefully. Perhaps it has to do with another of the women’s similarities: They’re both portrayed as political outsiders. But it says something that the GOP’s Queen Bees come from left field and tend to fare badly. The party is desperate for politically viable women because, well, it doesn’t seem to have any.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the last names of Maureen Dowd and Jane Mayer.