Can Carly Fiorina Overcome HP Legacy?

GOP 2016 Fiorina

You’ve got to wonder how 11 GOP presidential candidates managed to get through that three-hour marathon CNN debate. For all I know, they didn’t make it. I checked out after two hours to watch a football game I’d recorded.

Of what I did see, Chris Christie had a pretty strong showing while Trump was the same old Donald, right down to those class clown-like facial expressions. But it was Carly Fiorina who stole the show with, not one, not two, but three “mic drop” moments that left everyone speechless, including Donald Trump:

1. In one fluent, almost poetic statement, the former HP (NYSE:HPQ) CEO schooled the Obama administration and gave 20+ million Americans a lesson in how a real commander-in-chief sends a clear message to Vladimir Putin in language he would understand that renewed Russian aggression and interference in the Middle East would not be tolerated:

“We could rebuild the Sixth Fleet. I will. We haven't. We could rebuild the missile defense program. We haven't. I will. We could also, to Senator Rubio's point, give the Egyptians what they've asked for, which is intelligence. We could give the Jordanians what they've asked for, bombs and materiel. We have not supplied it. I will. We could arm the Kurds. They've been asking us for three years. All of this is within our control.”

2. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how she managed to do this, but Fiorina somehow linked Iran’s nuclear aspirations to Planned Parenthood’s sale of body parts in one persuasive proclamation that left me and everyone else stunned.

Fiorina said she would make two phone calls, the first to Prime Minister Netanyahu to reassure her “good friend” that “we will stand with the state of Israel” and the second to the Ayatollah Khamenei to say that, unless Iran opens its military and nuclear facilities to U.S. inspection, she “will make it as difficult as possible to move money around the global financial system.”

She punctuated her plan with a powerful statement: “We can do that, we don’t need anyone’s cooperation to do it. And every ally and every adversary we have in this world will know that the United States of America is back in the leadership business ...”

Then came “mic drop” moment number two:

“Anyone who has watched [the planned parenthood] videotape, I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain. This is about the character of our nation, and if we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us.”

3. Finally, when asked about Trump’s “Look at that face” quote in Rolling Stone, she delivered “mic drop” moment number three:

“I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”

It was quite a performance. Her intensity level was off the charts. Her positions were unassailable. She owned the room. Watching her on stage last week, Fiorina looked and sounded very much like the rock star CEO who took the helm at HP back in 1999. The question is, is that good or bad?

On stage, Fiorina was once again called upon to defend her rocky five-year tenure as chief executive of the Silicon Valley IT giant. Trump even threw in a jab about her previous experience at AT&T (NYSE:T) spinoff Lucent. And since Fiorina has no experience in politics, her track record in corporate America is definitely on the table.

The more attention Fiorina gets, the harder her detractors in the media are working to portray her performance as a corporate executive as everything from “not so great” to a downright failure and everything in between. And make no mistake, the media is working overtime on this.

If Lucent flourished on Fiorina’s watch, Fortune says it was irrational exuberance from the dot-com bubble. But when the telecom equipment maker hit a brick wall – along with everyone else as the tech bubble burst – that of course was her fault. She can’t win. It reminds me of the old coin flip scheme, “heads I win, tails you lose.”

And while Fiorina joined HP just seven months before the Nasdaq peaked and then fell off a cliff – taking much of Silicon Valley and the rest of the market down with it – Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld said, “HP was in great shape when she got there and she left it in tatters,” neither of which is actually true.

Some even manage to lay Meg Whitman’s failed four-year turnaround at Fiorina’s feet. Just last week, HP announced it would lay off another 30,000 employees when it splits in two, bringing the total number of job cuts to a staggering 85,000 during Whitman’s tenure.

Here’s a fact for all the fact checkers out there: Fiorina left HP a full decade ago. The company had five successive growth years under Mark Hurd immediately following her departure, then a nightmare 11 months of Leo Apotheker before Whitman took over in 2011. Fiorina neither left HP “in tatters” nor bears any responsibility for Whitman’s bloodbath.

Meanwhile Sonnenfeld – who Trump quoted in the debate, incidentally – went on to say that, "She's never gotten a CEO job tenure since. What does that tell you?" It tells me that, after five years at the pinnacle of the business world as the leader of a Fortune 20 company, she decided to do something different, just like everyone who manages to achieve that rare distinction. But then, a lifelong academic wouldn’t know anything about that.

Also Fiorina might have been a bit distracted by fighting a battle with breast cancer during that time.

Look. Trying to assess Fiorina’s leadership ability with statistics and sound bites from her tenure at HP – or Lucent, for that matter – is ludicrous. When the board brought her to HP, it wanted her to shatter the status quo and that’s what it got. It wanted her to shake up and reorganize a stodgy old company that had become sluggish and set in its ways, and that’s what she did.

If that sounds anything like what Washington needs at the top, I’d say she’s earned the right to compete for the job.

Fiorina managed HP through the worst tech industry downturn in history. Granted, doubling down on PCs by merging with Compaq may not look brilliant in hindsight, but had she followed through on her original intention to acquire the consulting practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers instead, things might have turned out very different, both for HP and for IBM (NYSE:IBM), which later scooped up PwC.

How much sway the company’s chronically dysfunctional board had over that decision, we’ll never know.

The fact that Fiorina became one of the most powerful women in the world, atop one of the biggest and most storied companies in American history, is in itself a remarkable achievement that few can claim. That alone speaks to her leadership capability. Fiorina has earned every right to be on that stage competing for America’s top job.