Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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Shades of Gray and Pink

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Carly Fiorina, back on the trail

Carly Fiorina returned to the campaign trail today, a couple of days after being hospitalized for an infection related to reconstructive surgery she had during her bout with breast cancer.

The buzz among California political watchers is what if any effect her medical setback will have on her neck-and-race race with Sen. Barbara Boxer. Can Fiorina expect a bow wave of sympathy that convert to a surprise support? Or, is the result the very opposite, with voters more reluctant to vote for Fiorina after hearing the word “cancer?” Or , is it a wash?

It’s reminiscent of another Senate race — a state senate race — in Wisconsin. There, Republican Ed Thompson (brother of Tommy, the state’s former governor) is battling both a Democratic incumbent and pancreatic cancer. Thompson says he’s started an extensive series of chemotherapy treatments that only recently have been approved in the U.S., and that he might face surgery at some point down the road.

But he insists the disease isn’t diminishing his campaign. “I had worse in a couple of boxing matches,” he told reporters.

There’s also the presidential campaign of the late Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas. Challenging Bill Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 1992, Tsongas made his survival from non-Hodgkins lymphoma a part of his message. But he wasn’t honest about it. Tsongas said his doctors at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston had given the candidate a cancer-free bill of health. In truth, his cancer wasn’t cured. Tsongas passed away on January 18, 1995 (at age 55, from pneumonia), just two days shy of what would have been the end of his first White House term had he and not Clinton ended up as America’s 42nd president.

And there were three cancer survivors in the field of 2008 Republican presidential hopefuls — John McCain (melanoma), Fred Thompson (lymphoma) and Rudy Giuliani (prostate). McCain, of course, got the nomination. But his cancer fight was problematic — both for the scar left on his face and how it contrasted to his younger, robust Democratic opponent.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that honesty is a problem for Fiorina — nor age (she’s turned 56 last month) or future treatments, surgeries or procedures.

But I am curious about how she could have/should have incorporated breast cancer into her political identity in this, her first campaign for public office.

Earlier in the race

A year ago, when she first entered the Republican senatorial primary, Fiorina openly discussed her struggles with the disease. She really had no other choice, given that her hair was shorn as a result of chemotherapy.

But she made another choice along the way: not to make breast cancer a focal point — a core identifying point — for why she’s running (other than saying that, after chemotherapy, Boxer isn’t that scary), or as a cancer survivor what policies concern her  (in particular, what a nationalized healthcare system would mean for other U.S. cancer patients). Moreover, you didn’t see Fiorina front and center at women’s health events during “Pink October” and breast-cancer awareness efforts.

Granted, there’s a fine line between discussing hardship and milking it for political purpose. New York Rep. Carolyn McCarthy first introduced herself to the political world as a gun-control advocate and widow whose husband was killed in the Long Island Rail Road shooting. Here in California, Rep. Jackie Speier for two decades now hasn’t shied away from mentioning that she survived the Jonestown massacre.  In their defense, they’ll tell you they did into the pathos because it tells yow who they are, and why they seek office.

Following this election, aides from the top California campaigns will gather in Berkeley to discuss the highs and low of their efforts — which strategies worked, and which didn’t. I’m looking forward to what Team Fiorina says about cancer and the branding of the candidate who battled and defeated it.

Did focus groups and poll respondents find her health a net-plus or net-minus? Was wearing a pink ribbon (npw different from prostate-cancer survivor John Kelly wearing yellow “Live Strong” band on his left wrist in 2004, I’d contend) considered proper and justified, or did Fiorina’s political braintrust fear a pushback?

I think it ties into a subplot of this year’s election in California — two very accomplished women (Fiorina and Meg Whitman) and the question of how best to introduce them to the electorate: how tough, how soft, how feminine, how gender-neutral.

Hillary Clinton struggled with this in her presidential run.

So too did Whitman and Fiorina in this go-round.


Written by Bill Whalen

October 28, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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