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Carly Fiorina brings two distinctions to the 2016 Republican presidential field. She's the only woman and, as former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, the only Fortune 500 chieftain in the race.
Both have brought her into conflict with current front-runner Donald Trump, the bombastic real-estate mogul. Trump has highlighted her firing from Hewlett-Packard in 2005, mocked her looks, and declared that even the sound of her voice gives him "a massive headache."
But now, having gained a spot on the main Republican debate stage Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the 61-year-old Fiorina gets a chance to fire back in person. She sat down to discuss the opportunity with me at Arnie's Place, a diner in Concord, New Hampshire. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.
HARWOOD: Congratulations on making the big debate. Are you looking forward to giving Donald Trump a massive headache?
FIORINA: Well, I think Mr. Trump's going to be hearing quite a lot from me.
HARWOOD: You've said, "I'll stack up my business career against his any day of the week." So, stack it up.
FIORINA: Donald Trump and I are in totally different businesses. He's in the entertainment business. And he's also in a privately held business. In the business I was in, we had to report our results publicly, as you well know, in excruciating detail, quarter after quarter after quarter. Make projections in excruciating detail.
And if I misrepresented those results or those projections I could be held criminally liable. If I had done it, I could have gone to jail. Those are his standards. I think my standards are what the American people would appreciate politicians or people running for office being held to.
If you file for bankruptcy four times, I think it suggests either lack of judgment or lack of discipline.
HARWOOD: Our audience knows the basics of your background but many don't have a fix on where you come from on some of the policy issues. When it comes to figuring out how to spend those last few dollars, more tax cuts or more deficit reduction?
FIORINA: Republicans have been talking about this in the wrong way forever. I'm not in favor of revenue-neutral tax reform. I'm in favor of revenue-reducing tax reform. The government spends too much money.
The only way to get a bureaucracy under control is to do two things. Give it less money—we haven't done that for 50 years. And know where every dollar's being spent. I am a prioritize-tax-dollars Republican.
We never prioritize. Why is it that the federal government spends more money every year and yet never has enough money to do anything important? The excuse always is, we can't secure the border. We need more money. We can't fund our military. We need more money. We can't do roads and bridges. We need more money. That is the classic symptom of a bureaucracy that never has to justify its spending.
We have to have lower rates. The government needs to take in less tax money, not more. There's only one way to cut deficits - actually, there are two ways, and they go hand in hand. Grow the economy, cut spending. But the only way you can grow the economy it to cut some of the spending that's going on.
HARWOOD: They've cut a lot out of domestic discretionary spending. The real money, if you talk to Republicans, is in entitlements. So, Social Security and Medicare?
FIORINA: I reject the premise of your question. There has not been real cutting going on. Every year, Senator Tom Coburn puts together a report of fraud, waste, abuse, corruption in the federal government. It adds up to a lot of money. Nobody ever does anything about it.
The professional political class—Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio among them, but certainly not limited to them—here's where they always fail us. How long have we been talking about entitlement reform? We talk about it every election. We talk about tax reform every election. And guess what? Nothing happens. There are binders full of great conservative ideas on how to reform Social Security and entitlements. And we will never get to it because the political class can't challenge the status quo.
HARWOOD: I interviewed Marco Rubio a couple weeks ago, and asked him about President Bush's failed attempt to partially privatize Social Security, and said, "Do you want to go back to that?" He said, "No, the time has passed for that." Do you think privatization is a useful structural reform to make?
FIORINA: I think there are loads of great ideas on how to make Social Security more financially solvent. I do not think there is a prayer of implementing a single one until you get a leader in the Oval Office who's prepared to challenge the status quo. And I am not prepared to go to the American people and talk to them about how we're going to reform Social Security and Medicare until I can demonstrate to them that the government can execute with excellence, perform its responsibilities with excellence, serve the people who pay for it with excellence.
HARWOOD: Now, that is a dodge worthy of a very good politician.
FIORINA: It's not a dodge. I am deadly serious. Look, we just had an inspector general's report that tells us that 307,000 veterans died waiting for health care. Nothing has been done about that, despite the fact that people can be fired in the VA in the senior executive service for dereliction of duty. Nothing's happened.
This is why the American people are sick to death of politics as usual. Because we talk about all kinds of good things in election cycles. And none of it happens. None of it happens.
HARWOOD: Do you believe that humans contribute to climate change and that government ought to do something about it?
FIORINA: I believe if you're going to go to science, you need to read the fine print. And here's what the scientists say: A single nation acting alone can make no difference at all. The only answer to this problem, according to the scientists, is a three-decade global effort, coordinated and costing trillions of dollars. Are you kidding? It'll never happen.
When the Chinese said to Obama, "Oh, we're going to come up with a deal with you, we're going to stop increasing our global greenhouse emissions by 2025," you know what they were doing? They were simply lifting a goal out of a five-year plan and saying, "We'll play along." They're not playing along.
The answer is innovation. And the only way to innovate is for this nation to have industries strong enough that they can innovate. So instead of destroying people's livelihoods at the altar of ideology—which is what it is, not science—we ought to say, "We're going to become the global energy powerhouse of the 21st century."
We need to become the global energy powerhouse of the 21st century for so many reasons. To create jobs, to make the bad guys less bad, and so that we have industries including the coal industry that's powerful enough to be able to innovate. That's how you're going to solve an intractable problem. It's always the way you solve an intractable problem. Not with regulation—with innovation.
HARWOOD: Donald Trump has gotten a lot of criticism for good reason for saying things about your appearance: "Look at that face. Can't be president." Didn't you do the same thing to Barbara Boxer in 2010, talking about her hairdo?
FIORINA: No, not at all. The Barbara Boxer comment was not generous. I was quoting a friend. It was 6 in the morning, and I was caught on an open mic. Donald Trump is very deliberate about what he says.
HARWOOD: I wonder if sometimes you push the gender button where it's not deserved. One time when someone raised the question, "Is Carly running for VP?," you said they'd never ask that of a man. I've been covering these campaigns a long time. And that is asked about literally every candidate who is considered not one of the ones with a great chance of winning the nomination or election.
FIORINA: Now it is. And I didn't make that comment when it was being asked of everyone. But I will tell you that having been out on the trail, the first six to eight weeks of my campaign, no one was asking anyone else that question. And they always asked me that question. And I think if you go back and look at the coverage, you'll see that. Obviously everyone's moved on now.
I do not play the gender card. But let's just be honest. A man would not be asked on national television whether his hormones prevented from him from serving in the Oval Office. Donald Trump has said many things about other candidates. But he has not talked about their appearance.
HARWOOD: In 2008 when you were campaigning for John McCain, you said Sarah Palin was not capable of running a big corporation, and neither was McCain, Barack Obama, Joe Biden. You said, "It is a fallacy to say that running a company and running the country are the same thing." If that's a fallacy, why should Republicans and the country turn to someone who has not been elected to anything and has not served in government?
FIORINA: Politicians haven't done a very good job running the country either. So why would you conclude it takes a politician? It's also true that there are jobs that take a technical understanding. Flying an airplane is one of them, for example. And a CEO is a job that requires a level of technical mastery built over time.
Ours was intended to be a citizen government. Here are the experiences, the skills that a president needs: An understanding of how the economy works. I have it. An understanding of how the world works and who's in it.
I have more foreign policy, world-leader experience than anyone running as a Republican. An understanding of how bureaucracies work and how to cut them down to size. An understanding of how technology works—pretty important now. It's a tool and a weapon. And an understanding of leadership.
I believe I am the most qualified candidate running in either party to be president of the United States. And I think more and more voters are starting to agree with me.