How to Speak CPAC

Carly Fiorina knows how to talk to just about any audience of conservatives.

Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, speaks at CPAC.
Carly Fiorina speaks at CPAC in National Harbor, Maryland, on Feb. 26, 2015.

Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

It’s 4 p.m., it’s frigid outside, it’s sunny in a way that feels obnoxious, and Carly Fiorina is descending into a beer-scented abyss. I mean, not really. But the potential 2016 contender—with a résumé the size of a phone book and a spiritual gift for taking jabs at Hillary Clinton—might be the busiest person at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and part of her jammed schedule is navigating a questionable back stairway down into the basement of The Walrus Oyster & Ale House a few blocks from the convention center to give a quick talk to a boisterous group of about 200 boisterous College Republicans.


This is the kind of event that begs to be exaggerated: You won’t believe how College Republicans got wasted in a shady CPAC basement bar well before 5 p.m.! But the reality is more staid. While it’s basically a law of physics that College Republicans are big on drinking early and often, the group of business-casual clad kids that jostled around to hear the former California senate candidate speak really wasn’t a hot mess. And that group of wine-glass-toting, sign-waving, GOP-loving scholars was delighted with the potential 2016 candidate.


Carly Fiorina is a CPAC polyglot. She segues effortlessly from name-dropping Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin on the mainstage to empathizing with a cancer survivor who wants a picture with her (she survived cancer, too) to sitting on a panel on “The Wealth of a Nation: Economic Policies that Help Average, Middle-Class Americans” to ducking into a bar full of ebullient College Republicans in the process of having one of the more sloshed weekends of their college careers.


“Hi guys, are you having fun?” she asks. Cheers. “Did you see my speech earlier today?” Louder cheers. “I’m not going to talk long, because I know you want to get back to—what you were doing,” she continues (more cheers), and then praises them for being made of the stout stuff necessary to be College Republicans.

“When you learn to stand up for your principles and your values in an environment where a lot of people don’t get it, you turn out to know how to be a pretty strong advocate for lots of things,” she says. “And that will serve you well in life.”

She talks for just a few minutes, and her comments are punctuated by one raucous cheer after another.


“Continue with the libations, thanks for being here!” she concludes.

Then Alex Smith, the College Republicans national chairman, hops up on stage to direct the kids into a lengthy photo-op line.

“Hey guys, Carly Fiorina must be a true College Republican,” says Smith, “She just told everyone to continue with the libations, we all know what that means!”

More whoops.

“It was amazing,” enthuses Erin O’Brien a few minutes later as she waits to get a picture with Fiorina. O’Brien, who sports perfect cat eyeliner and an “I ♥ Capitalism” button, tells me she’s a student at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Clair and that she “would vote for her in a heartbeat.”

But Fiorina’s Cool Mom appeal may have limits. As we hustled toward the CPAC exhibit hall a few hours before she addressed the students in that room aromatic with maltiness and youth, she said she opposes marijuana legalization.


“I remember when I had cancer and my doctor said, ‘Do you have any interest in medicinal marijuana?’ I did not,” she says. “And they said, good, because marijuana today is such a complex compound, we don’t really know what’s in it, we don’t really know how it interacts with other substances or other medicines.”


She had a lot to say, however, about how Putin interacts. Fiorina said she met him when she went to China for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation event, where the two sat down one-on-one.

“He was quite charming, very intelligent, ruthless, not to be trifled with, and disrespects weakness of any kind,” she said.

“He’s quite funny, he tells good jokes,” she added. “I just remember sitting in the chair and thinking, this is a formidable guy who can disarm someone.”

Fiorina didn’t remember any of Putin’s jokes, unfortunately, and said that even if she had she wouldn’t have done a good job retelling them because she’s not good with jokes.

Could you be a good president if you’re experienced at facing off with despots but bad at punch lines? College Republicans seem to think so.