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Is it fair for Carly Fiorina to use her breast cancer for political gain?

The morning after winning the Republican Senate primary in California, Carly Fiorina belly-flopped into treacherous political waters. Prepping for a TV interview, the former HP CEO was caught on a hot mic gleefully repeating a friend’s unflattering assessment of Democratic rival Barbara Boxer’s hair. (“Soooooooo yesterday,” Fiorina sniffed.)

Now, I don’t know much about hip hairstyles. (I never got the fuss over Hillary’s headbands, and I find Palin’s poofy up-dos downright adorable.) But I do know it’s bad form to disparage a female pol’s coif. Men who go there are branded pigs. Gals who do it are denounced as catty, bitchy perpetuators of a system that fixates, unjustly and insultingly, on the physical attributes of female candidates. (Be honest: How long did you spend online this week reading about Palin’s suspected boob job?)

Under fire for going all “Mean Girls,” Fiorina refused to bow. Asked about the gaffe by Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren, the candidate responded with a brushback that quickly made the rounds of media both old and new:

“My goodness, my hair has been talked about by a million people, you know. It sort of goes with the territory.”

But then, as Greta was moving to change the subject, Fiorina rushed to add:

“Especially when you don’t have any hair. As you remember, I started out with none.”

A reference to the chemotherapy for breast cancer that caused Fiorina to lose her trademark blonde locks last year, this part of her self-defense received almost no notice. Which is a pity. Because, while the candidate’s dig at the opposition was likely, as an aide breezily asserted, nothing more than “early morning small talk,” her playing of the cancer card has become a significant part of Fiorina’s political strategy these days.

Last week’s chat with Greta was far from the first time that Fiorina has brought up her breast cancer ordeal. (Diagnosed in February 2009, Fiorina spent much of last year enduring the treatment trifecta of surgery, radiation, and chemo.) Her website includes a short video of the candidate discussing the battle, its challenges, and the blessings it ultimately brought. Under the heading “A Clean Bill of Health,” the clip is presumably aimed in part at assuring voters that Fiorina is physically up to the task of being a senator. But invoking her survivor status also serves to impress voters with the candidate’s feistiness and fortitude. Both on the trail and in interviews, one of Fiorina’s favorite kickers has become, “After chemotherapy, Barbara Boxer isn’t very scary anymore.”

No longer a taboo subject, breast cancer has become a badge of courage in modern American politics. Anne Kornblut touches on this phenomenon in her book Notes from the Cracked Ceiling, examining how their breast cancer experiences have impacted the public images of candidates such as Arizona governor-turned-homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano, Washington state Governor Christine Gregoire, and Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Observes Kornblut:

While the “politics of breast cancer” is not quite a separate academic field, strategists have found that voters respond well to women who face, and overcome, the disease. ...
Surviving is almost comparable to withstanding a war wound. Geoff Garin, the Democratic pollster, said it sends several messages at once. “For women it confers courage, that you’ve faced up to something really difficult in your life,” he said. “It confers a real-world knowledge of the health care system. And there’s an expectation that going through a personal crisis like that tends to make somebody more empathetic. The most important thing is that it’s really seen as a sign of courage. It is described very much in terms of fighting a battle, and women who have gone through this successfully are described as survivors, and what it means to be a survivor goes beyond just a medical term.”

While overcoming any serious disease can make for a compelling political narrative, beating breast cancer is a struggle that resonates with, and makes a candidate more relatable to, women in particular. This could prove especially valuable for someone like Fiorina, who has a reputation as prickly and unlikable. Even as it attests to her toughness, that little pink ribbon humanizes Fiorina--keeps her from coming across as heartless and bloodless a la Hillary.

From a purely strategic perspective, the heroic cancer narrative is hard to counter. Women are loath to be cynical about such stories, and most men would rather stick a fork in their eye than risk alienating the female electorate over the subject. And, really, who can begrudge these women for feeling compelled to talk about such a transformative, life-consuming experience?

Admittedly, there is always the risk of overreach. Invoking a breast cancer battle as a kind of character testimony is one thing; brandishing it as a partisan weapon is more problematic. And Fiorina already has proved willing to do just that. In early December, the recently announced candidate was invited to give the GOP weekly radio address; she began by talking at length about her cancer struggle, before sounding a passionate, personal alarm about the nightmarish government takeover of our health care system that would occur if Obamacare passed. “Will a bureaucrat determine my life isn’t worth saving?” she asked plaintively, flirting not so subtly with the whole death panel hysteria. A couple of minutes later, in case anyone was not yet sufficiently alarmed, she asked, “Do we really want government bureaucrats—rather than doctors—dictating how we prevent and treat something like breast cancer?” A couple of minutes after that, she went so far as to claim expertise on the issue of systemic reform on the basis of her own medical history. “While some defend the idea of a government task force,” she cautioned, “my experience with cancer tells me it’s wrong.”

This kind of naked exploitation is risky—as is Fiorina’s using her survivor status to deflect criticism when she makes a bush-league mistake like Hairgate. But if the candidate can avoid such heavy-handedness, her more subtle invocations of her cancer battle could prove devastating in her fight for California women in particular.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.

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