Earlier this week, NPR profiled California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina. The former Hewlett Packard CEO unexpectedly won the state’s Republican primary a few weeks ago, and pollsters believe she has a legitimate chance of beating three-term incumbent Barbara Boxer in the midterm elections.
The NPR profile wasn’t especially notable. It led with tape of Fiorina extolling her business experience at a fundraiser and went on to sketch her background, her controversial legacy at HP, and her anti-abortion stance, which is a political liability in California. However, there was one remarkable thing about the five-minute segment: Nearly thirty seconds were devoted to a gaffe Fiorina made a day after her primary victory, when she was caught on an open microphone deriding Boxer’s hairstyle. Gaffes can determine elections, and this one—a catty remark in a high profile race between two women—was tailor-made to generate page views.
That the hair gaffe continues to get play in Fiorina’s campaign coverage is unsurprising. But take a moment to consider a different, less-reported gaffe, one Fiorina made in June, in the final days of California’s Republican primary. It consisted of a television ad that begins with a clip of Barbara Boxer telling an interviewer, “One of the very important national security issues we face, frankly, is climate change.” Then Fiorina, sleekly coiffed, fills the screen. Looking directly at the camera and annunciating each word slowly and carefully for maximum dramatic effect, she informs California voters that, “Terrorism kills, and Barbara Boxer is worried about the weather.”
Technically, it’s unclear whether this can be considered a gaffe, since Fiorina didn’t commit it by mistake. Whatever it is, though, it’s significantly more embarrassing then her quip about Boxer’s hair. It’s possible that Fiorina was being disingenuous—she has been quoted in the past supporting action to mitigate climate change. If she didn’t mean what she said—if the ad reflects not her actual views, but the political calculations of her advisors—that’s news in itself. Making snide remarks about your opponents personal style is unpleasant, certainly, but not as unpleasant as lying to voters in an egregious political ad.
That’s scenario one. Scenario two is that Fiorina does believe that climate change is worthy of her scorn and dismissal. That would also be news. Climate change is an important issue in California. Studies consistently show that it will impact the state earlier than much of the rest of the country, and with more force. It will endanger California’s agriculture, and make its cities less livable. It will cause natural disasters, such as wildfires and flooding, to increase in number and severity. And it will contribute to worsening drought, in an already drought-plagued state.
So why would NPR go with the hair gaffe, not the climate gaffe? The probable answer—political sizzle is more commercially attractive than policy steak—is an old story. But just because it’s old doesn’t make it any less unfortunate.Sam Kornell wrote last September about climate change and California agriculture for the Santa Barbara Independent, where he is a former editor.