The word landed at the end of the first sentence Carly Fiorina spoke at the Republican presidential debate last week: “My story, from secretary to CEO, is only possible in this nation, and proves that every one of us has potential.”
Over the next three hours, Fiorina used the word four more times, to explain how she would lead the country and describe how its current leadership has failed.
“The highest calling of leadership is to unlock potential in others,” she said.
“Problems have festered in Washington for too long. And the potential of this nation is being crushed.”
“We [women] are half the potential of this nation.”
Contemporary politics is full of talk of potential, promise and progress. But for Fiorina, Hewlett-Packard’s former CEO, the technology company, the word “potential” really matters.
It is part of a language and style of speaking Fiorina has developed that is not typical of political speech, messaging experts say, but instead is drawn from corporate America – her natural habitat – with hints of motivational speaking mixed in.
It seems to be working. Fiorina’s light-footed, punchy performance at the first “undercard” debate last month boosted her to the main event last Wednesday, when she turned in an even stronger performance, if the pundits are to be believed. (No significant national polling has been released since the event.)
“She doesn’t stand out because she’s a woman,” said Frank Luntz, a political messaging consultant and Republican strategist. “She stands out because of the way she presents her case.”
What’s been very notable during the debates is that her word choice is atypical for a political candidate
“What’s been very notable during the debates is that her word choice is atypical for a political candidate,” said Dan Schnur, a University of Southern California professor who was national director of communications for Senator John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. “It’s language that comes much more from the private sector than from the campaign trail.”
George Lakoff, a renowned cognitive linguist at the University of California at Berkeley, saw something less benign at work in Fiorina’s rhetorical tactics.
“She’s cherry-picking the part of things that happen to be true but hiding the systemic reality,” he said. “She’s pretty awful, and this will come out.”
As left unskirted by Lakoff, Fiorina is a divisive figure, especially in California, where she lost a 2010 run for the US Senate by 10 points to incumbent Barbara Boxer. Five years earlier, she had been fired from Hewlett-Packard (HP), setting off a public relations battle that rages on today.
“The company is a disaster and continues to be a disaster,” rival presidential candidate Donald Trump said Wednesday. “In fact, today, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal , they fired another 25- or 30,000 people, saying we still haven’t recovered from the catastrophe.”
Fiorina retorted that Trump had “run up mountains of debt, as well as losses, using other people’s money” in his casino business.
“Honestly, Mr Trump, I find it quite rich that you would talk about this,” she said.
Fiorina has built a strong counter-case to the argument that she damaged HP , beginning with the fact that the Nasdaq index of technology stocks tanked between 1999 and 2005, her chief executive years.
True to her roots as a tech exec, Fiorina has adapted early and often. In her 2016 run, she has noticeably modulated her speaking style from her Senate campaign days, Schnur said.
“She was recognized to be a very effective communicator during her [Senate] campaign, but it was a much more confrontational, and sometimes harsher, tone,” Schnur said.
“She has definitely adjusted the way in which she expresses herself. It’s entirely likely that the people advising her on her first campaign told her that that was the way candidates talk. And she may have decided by now that that’s not what works best for her.”
“She has a brevity of words that most politicians don’t have,” said Luntz. “She actually communicates like a very effective business leader rather than a very effective politician … It is a business-oriented style. It’s not based in ideology or principle, it’s based in reality and fact.”
Sarah Isgur Flores, Fiorina’s deputy campaign manager, said in an email that the candidate’s unique messaging was drawn from her unique personal experience.
“Carly is different from everyone else running,” Flores wrote. “Maybe that’s why she sounds different too.”
In some instances, Fiorina’s deployment of language from the corporate sphere, with its use of jargon and acronym to imply insight and exclusivity, seems ill-suited to politics. In a chapter about prescriptions for governmental leadership in her recent book, Rising to the Challenge, Fiorina refers to the “double helix of technology and globalization” and the “Digital, Mobile, Virtual, Personal” age.
“It’s important to remember the basics: centralized bureaucracies will always fail in the DMVP era,” she writes. “Human potential is a limitless resource that must be unlocked, focused, and leveraged to solve our problems and tap into our opportunities.”
“Potential” is Fiorina’s keyword, but the word is freighted with so much meaning in her writings and speeches that it can seem at risk of tipping over into meaninglessness.
Fiorina uses the word to summon the power of women voters, naming a national outreach program she started last year the Unlocking Potential Project. Fiorina describes a stepdaughter’s death from a drug overdose as a tragedy of “untapped potential”. The tragedy is the same for farmers in central California whose fields the government declined to irrigate, and for a woman in South Carolina who did not open a hair salon because of licensing and regulatory hurdles.
The “radical insight” of the founding fathers was “that the right to fulfil your potential – to use your God-given gifts – is a right that comes from God and cannot be taken away by government”.
She really unlocked the potential of people by firing them
As un-political as Fiorina can sound, her broader rhetorical approach is an exercise in textbook conservative messaging, said Lakoff, whose influential 1996 book, Moral Politics, argues that the political right and left are informed by radically different conceptions of morality, captured in their language.
“She gives the usual [negative] conservative stuff about quote ‘government’, forgetting certain things about government,” Lakoff said. “Such as government is the public, it is the people, it is civil servants. Not only that, its job is to provide public services for everybody, including in business.”
Lakoff reeled off a list of core government services, from maintaining the satellite networks that enable cellphone reception to the development of the internet to research in health, drugs and technology.
“She’s doing the usual conservative story,” Lakoff said. “Government is bad, and private enterprise is good and it works – when she was one of the worst people in private enterprise.
“She really unlocked the potential of people by firing them.”
In discussing Fiorina’s rhetorical skill, both Schnur and Luntz said she was especially good in the recent debate when asked to respond to a comment Trump had made depreciating her face, which he later said had been misinterpreted.
Just before the question was asked, Trump had been trying to stop Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, from squirming away from a suggestion he had made that the government should cut spending on women’s health.
“You said it. You said it,” Trump said.
Fiorina used the Trump-Bush exchange to set up her spike.
“You know, it’s interesting to me, Mr Trump said that he heard Mr Bush very clearly and what Mr Bush said,” Fiorina said. “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr Trump said.”
Luntz said the line was far and away the most effective of the night, in terms of positive response from a focus group whose reactions were tracked in real time.
“What was really instructive was the way she prefaced it,” Schnur said. “Most politicians, when they have a well-prepared soundbite to offer, they sound like they’ve been pre-programmed to deliver that soundbite.
“What Fiorina did was before she made her statement, she referenced something that Trump said in the debate.
“Simply by prefacing her statement with a reference to something else that was happening in the conversation, the soundbite didn’t sound nearly as programmed and pre-prepared as politicians normally do.
“In other words, she was having a conversation – and that doesn’t happen too often in politics.
“That’s how normal people talk.”
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