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Kai Ryssdal: In our CEO series a couple of years ago, Conversations from the Corner Office, we had eBay’s then-CEO Meg Whitman on the program. We talked about the company a while and how eBay has more competition than it used to. At one point as we were talking, she said this:
Meg Whitman: In this business, you have to constantly reinvent yourself.
She was talking about online auctions specifically, but she may as well have had herself in mind. Whitman left eBay not long after our interview. She’s now running for the Republican nomination for governor here in California. Also on the primary ballot tomorrow for Senate is former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
There are just 15 Fortune 500 companies this year being run by women. We’ve called Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, to ask how Whitman and Fiorina might figure in the larger political context this year. Jack, it’s good to have you with us.
Jack Pitney: Thank you.
Ryssdal: Let me ask you this the generic question first: Is it better this year in the election cycle to be a corporate insider than a political insider?
Pitney: That’s going to be the big question in the fall here in California, when very likely we have corporate insiders — Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina — against political insiders — Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer. At the moment, the indication seems to be that people are even more angry with political insiders than corporate insiders. So, that might be a bit of advantage for Fiorina and Whitman.
Ryssdal: People trying to bring business expertise to politics, though, have, you might safely say, a mixed record. Are these two going to have any better luck at it, because they’re women?
Pitney: People tend to trust women more than men, all other things being equal. But they both have vulnerabilities on their business records, and except the Democrats to exploit those vulnerabilities very, very early.
Ryssdal: For example — and I haven’t heard this yet on the race out here — Carly Fiorina got fired from Hewlett-Packard.
Pitney: That’s right. In the campaign, Tom Campbell, who was her main opponent, didn’t raise it very often, because Tom Campbell is just not a very negative politician. But Barbara Boxer has been very tough in past campaigns, and I’d expect Barbara Boxer to raise that very, very early.
Ryssdal: Could this have happened, could we have had these two women, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, running somehow in a Democratic primary? I mean, if you had a woman who was CEO of a major corporation who happened to be a Democrat, would they have had as much luck as these two have had in a GOP primary season?
Pitney: One could certainly see female CEOs running in Democratic primaries. We had a male CEO, Al Checchi, run for governor in 1998. The corporate ties might have been a bigger issue in the primary campaign, because Democrats tend to be somewhat more skeptical of corporate power than Republicans.
Ryssdal: Will they have, do you think, better luck governing — should they be elected based on their business experience — because they’re women?
Pitney: There are going to be pluses and minuses. The plus is they’re experienced at job creations and the relationship between government and business. But there are obvious differences, especially Meg Whitman and the governorship. She would find very early on that dealing with the state legislature is very different from dealing with a board of directors. And given the structural problems that California faces, much harder to cut head count and balance the budget at the state-level than it would be in a corporation.
Ryssdal: So what is your gut tell you, come general election season, after these primaries?
Pitney: My gut tells me right now, the Democrats have the advantage. California is a blue state and Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer are very sharp, very experienced politicians. Nevertheless, Whitman and Fiorina have a lot of money to spend and the wind could be at the Republican Party’s back this year.
Ryssdal: Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna college. Professor, thanks so much for your time.
Pitney: Any time.
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