Web 2.0: Carly Fiorina talks potential Senate run, breast cancer battle, and government tech policy

carly-1It was a very different Carly Fiorina who took the stage at the Web 2.0 Summit dinner tonight to discuss her potential run for the U.S. Senate.

Just as it was typical when she was the first female chief executive of Hewlett Packard, part of the conversation with Web 2.0 co-host John Battelle covered her appearance. But in this case it was relevant in the discussion about her political reviews.

Fiorina’s hair was a mix of dark brown and gray and it looked as if it had been recently shaved. She said that her close-shorn look was a result of her eight-month battle with breast cancer.

“I have seen the best and the worst of our healthcare system,” she said, with her voice shaking slightly with the emotional moment that focused on her own health. But she told the audience at the dinner that she was healthy. She was there to talk about her possible bid as a Republican candidate to take on Democrat Barbara Boxer. Fiorina didn’t outright declare her candidacy, but she said she was exploring the idea.

carly-3Asked if she was ready to handle the scrutiny that politicians endure in the public limelight, she said she endured a lot of that as CEO of HP during the tumultuous years of the HP-Compaq merger, the tumultuous battle for control of the board, and her very public firing. She noted that she wrote her book Tough Choices in an honest way and in the name of being transparent.

“I have battled cancer all of these years and we had to deal with a tragedy in our family,” she said. “What people say about you publicly is important, but not profound. I felt that if you are comfortable in your own life and your own skin, bring it on.”

Five years ago, Fiorina said she would have laughed at the idea of running for public office. But she said she felt that politicians in Washington were out of touch and that the problem was that they didn’t spend enough time in private life, running businesses. She noted that she started her business career as a secretary and worked her way up. She worked at AT&T as the government broke up its monopoly on phone service.

Fiorina got polite applause, but some of her boldest comments met with silence. Perhaps that is because she was a Republican in San Francisco, a land of Democratic party dominance. But it also goes back to how she was a controversial figure when she was running what has become the world’s biggest technology company. As always, she was well spoken and her comments sometimes bordered on eloquence. That got her applause.

Fiorina wasn’t afraid to express some views. She feels that Congress doesn’t realize what it’s like to run a small business in the U.S. and how to foster innovation. She noted that she opposed the bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler — two big businesses — at the same time GM was shutting down 3,600 dealerships across the country that were run by small business people, resulting in a loss of 156,000 jobs that outnumbered the job losses at the car companies themselves. She also said that it was odd that biotech got no stimulus money, but the construction industry received a lot of it — a sign that the nation’s priorities weren’t right.

carly-21She said she is a Republican in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln in that she believes “people, left to themselves, make better decisions about their lives than the government does.” She also said that current politicians have done nothing to curb the $1 trillion deficit and that there is no one in charge of cutting costs in Washington.

She praised the way current HP CEO Mark Hurd has run the company. And she acknowledged that she made mistakes. One of them, she said, was not dealing with her “dysfunctional board” early on and instead focusing on the execution of the HP-Compaq merger instead. That ultimately came back to haunt her, leading to her ouster. But she noted with some satisfaction that the people responsible for her firing — such as Tom Perkins and Patricia Dunn — were fired themselves not long after she left. (Dunn was fired for initiating a controversial spying program aimed at finding out board leaks; Fiorina reminded the audience that she was a victim of that spying program as well).

She mentioned that politicians should be held accountable just the way that business managers and board members are, and that the U.S. government cannot continue to spend money without dealing with entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Fiorina criticized Boxer for successfully sponsoring only three relatively insignificant bills in her 18 years in the Senate.

“I don’t think that’s good enough,” she said.

Asked what she thought about regulation of the web, she said it was inevitable that there would be more regulation of it. Why, for instance, is there no protection of women and children on the Internet, when there is plenty in real life. She said this duality — where anything goes on the wild wild west of the Internet — would have to end.

Asked about political power, she noted that the worst expression of power is when someone says you have to do something “because I say so.” She said that influencing people to do the right thing is underrated in that respect. As for the war in Afghanistan, she said that she didn’t agree with convervative commentators who believed the war effort should be separated from the idea of “nation building.” She agreed with the Obama administration approach, she said, of trying to win over the population through efforts to restore civilian security, accountability, infrastructure and education.

“People give their loyalty to those who give them security and opportunity,” she said.

As for technology in government, she said that it should be used to make government more comprehensible, accessible and transparent.

Carly Fiorina video from Dean Takahashi on Vimeo.