McCain Embraces Tech Executives For White House Push – TechCrunch Interviews Carly Fiorina

Senator McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has twice this month embraced technology leaders in his push to become president. On March 7 Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, joined the Republican National Committee as Victory Chairman. And this last weekend Meg Whitman, the outgoing CEO of Ebay, became McCain’s campaign co-chair.

Frankly, he’ll need the help. We endorsed Senator McCain as the best “Technology President” among the Republican candidates. But he has not defined his tech policies as specifically as Senator Obama has, and he trails Obama in use of the Internet to get voter engagement and donations. Hear our recorded interview with Senator McCain here.

Fiorina and Whitman can help change all that.

I spoke to Fiorina last week for thirty minutes about her new position with the campaign and the party. We spoke both about specific policy issues where McCain either hadn’t fully worked through his policies when we spoke, or where I wanted additional clarification (net neutrality, mobile spectrum auctions, China and H1B visas, specifically). The interview is up at TalkCrunch, and embedded below. The transcript of the conversation is also copied below.

For the most part Fiorina is holding the line on tech issues. But she’s expressed a real willingness to explore new ideas when it comes to reaching out to voters on social networks, YouTube and other places on the Internet. But she wouldn’t get specific on upcoming plans, and much of what she said seems to be focused on raising cash as the first priority. As Obama has seen, simply engaging with people eventually leads to big donations. If the McCain camp wants to cut into his lead, they need to get started now.

Listen now on TalkCrunch

Transcript Of Podcast:

Michael Arrington (MA): Hello this is Mike Arrington from Techcrunch, today I am speaking with Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, and who was just named the Victory Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Carly, welcome to TechCrunch.

Carly Fiorina (CF): Thank you Michael, its great to be with you, and happy birthday by the way.

MA: Thank you very much. There is so much I want to talk to you about and I know I don’t have a whole lot of your time. Could we start just by telling me a little bit about what the position as Victory Chairman entails and how you ended up here?

CF: My principal role as Chairman of Victory 08 is to be a primary advocate for John McCain and for the party. To provide my economic and business expertise to the Senator and the Party, and to of course help explain why we believe both John McCain and the Republican Party offer the best ideas for working families and small businesses in this country.

MA: Obviously all the candidates are using the internet in this campaign in ways that no one has done before both for raising money as well as building support. Is that a big part of your job as well?

CF: Well we certainly have to use the internet even more aggressively. The McCain campaign has done some good work on the internet and we’ve raised some good money; John’s had his million dollar days over the internet as well. Now we really have to gear up our efforts across all mediums so fundraising is certainly a big part of everyone’s time and attention right now on the internet and elsewhere.

MA: If you look at Facebook and Senator McCain, and also MySpace, has a large following of supporters on both of those platforms. Do you see the social networks as being useful at all for fundraising or is it more just to communicate with members and to build support that way?

CF: One of the things we’ve all kind of learned in this campaign and in particular in watching the Obama campaign is that any time you have an opportunity to communicate with people and connect with people you also have the opportunity to ask for their financial contribution and so we should be doing that all the time. When we reach people we should make sure they understand they have an opportunity to contribute at whatever level they can.

MA: If you look at the pure statistics, Barack Obama has done such a good job in getting friends and followers on the social networks and getting individual people to donate small amounts of money mostly on the internet. What are your plans, and I know its early still, but what are your plans in the near future to counter that and push McCain forward in those spaces as well. Do you have any specific ideas yet?

CF: It is too early for me to talk specifically about how were going to use the social networking sites although there are people thinking about that on Lou Eisenberg’s team. But what I would say is, again, every opportunity to communicate with people is an opportunity to ask for their contribution and as Barack has demonstrated small contributions can make as big a difference over time as big contributions, so nothing is too small. I would also say that it will be a focus of this campaign to go after young people more aggressively than we have to date. We need to broaden the appeal of the party and John McCain by making more diverse audiences aware of who he is and what he stands for and so you’re going to see John McCain reaching out to different members of the community than perhaps people would expect and you’ll see me doing that as well.

MA: I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with Senator McCain. I spoke to most of the presidential candidates and so I got a feel for how they address Sillicon Valley and also social networking crowds, and when McCain was on the phone with me we spoke at length, he had a very laid back personality, obviously not all the time, but on the phone with me he was and very comfortable talking about technology even though he’s not a regular computer user he said. But he seems comfortable with the issues and also comfortable reaching out to even the youngest voters.

CF: I totally agree with that, in fact just a little story here. I first met John McCain in 2000 not around his presidential campaign at that time but around the subject of internet taxation. And I remember being in his Senate office and talking with him about internet taxation and why that was a bad idea and it struck me then that not only did he get it totally but he was very focused on innovation and this is one of the things that attracted me to him. I think he really understands that government can play a role that motivates innovation and government can play a role to kill innovation. Innovation is the life blood of this nation and technology innovation has been a huge driver, obviously, not only of productivity but of jobs and wealth creation for people. So he does understand it and I think when young people get to know him he’s tremendously appealing to young people and he’s very comfortable with them and we need to allow that connection to happen more and more often.

MA: Thats an interesting segue into some of the technology issues that we’ve addressed with the candidates and I’d love to get your take on a few of them as well as the policies are finalized for Sen. McCain. When I spoke to McCain he had some preliminary policies in place on a number of issues and they certainly make sense particularly with regard to his politics and generally speaking Republican politics, particularly how they handle financial issues and the markets and regulation, tend to work very well in Silicon Valley with a hands off approach. There are some issues that have come up more recently that in particular I’d love both your personal feedback on it and how the party will eventually go with this, that maybe don’t work quite so well and at least some people in Silicon Valley are calling for maybe a little bit more handholding by the US government. For instance, in China many US companies do business in China, either selling hardware to China which is ultimately used (some of it) to monitor their own population with the firewall there, or in the case of the search engines like Google and Yahoo and Microsoft actually setting up corporations there and providing services directly to Chinese citizens, but they’re all working under Chinese laws and in some cases as I’m sure you’re aware with Yahoo actually handing over personal information to the Chinese government that can be used in ways that some of us find reprehensible. Sen. McCain, we didn’t talk a whole lot about China other than he wanted to take a tough stance with them over time, but specifically I guess the question I have is do you think there should be limitations on what US companies can do in working with the Chinese government?

CF: First let me say that I’m about to express my own opinion, and while I feel fairly comfortable that McCain and I are aligned on most things I haven’t had this specific conversation with him, so I want to be sure I’m upfront in saying I’m expressing my opinion…

MA: And by the way I’m very interested in your opinion, long time Silicon Valley executive, you know these issues like the back of your hand.

CF: Well thanks. First, I do not think it is in American interest to preclude American business’ from doing things that other businesses will do any way. For example, if the Chinese government can get technology or agreements from France or Russia or India and our government puts limitations on the American business communities’ ability to provide those same products or enter into those same agreements, that puts us at a competitive disadvantage, and I’ve taken that stand on the Hill for many many years. We need to be able to compete with everyone else in the world and the reality is that the Chinese can get whatever technology they want somehow. Because the truth is that little tiny microchips that sit in your BlackBerry are as powerful today as stuff that was a lot more expensive and a lot more complicated ten years ago, as you well know. However, I do think it is totally legitimate for the US government to say, “you know what as a member of the WTO, you actually have to abide by the rules and we’re going to inspect and expect your compliance to those rules.” I think it’s totally fair for the U.S. Government to say, “We expect transparency, we want to know what you’re doing with this stuff, and we’ll hold you accountable – hold you accountable in the ways that we can.” So I do think there’s a legitimate role for government but I don’t think the role should be, “Let’s prevent American businesses from doing business in China because we are afraid of what they might do with it.” And by the way I guess I would just say again as a personal matter, I think Yahoo! got the message loud and clear when poor Jerry Yang had to go up on the Hill and talk about what he’d done. I think that was a very impactful experience for him as a chief executive and for that company.

MA: Representative Lantos said, “Morally you are pigmies” and Representative Smith compared Yahoo to Nazi collaborators in World War II.

CF: I think that language was way, way, way over the top and I do not mean to condone that language in any way because I think it was just totally inappropriate. But I think the opportunity for a company that sells to consumers to have to explain their positions to consumers in transparent terms is appropriate.

MA: You know it’s funny I actually agree with you. I’ve been criticized because China is the one area where it’s truly gray area that there is some bad stuff going on, but do we really hobble US companies when there are European companies ready and willing to jump in and fill the void?

CF: I happen also on the board of something called Freedom House. Freedom house is a longstanding bipartisan organization originally founded by Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s really focused on how do we encourage the spread of freedom around the world. And one of the places where we’re engaged a lot is in China because we understand how the Chinese are beginning to use the Internet and we are working to try and encourage freedom on that new technology as well.

MA: Let’s switch issues. I could talk about China for hours and I’m sure you could as well. But I’d like to talk about something I know you’re probably very familiar with – it’s H-1B Visas. And the problem is H-1B Visas obviously allow us being Silicon Valley and other startup companies to get educated foreign workers for a period of time to work legally in the United States. The problem with the issue is that obviously immigration as a larger issue is a very touchy subject in the US right now, one that Senator McCain talked in our interview about him being personally burned by it. He was hesitant to throw his weight behind an expansion of the H-1B Visa program which currently only allows 65,000 workers per year into the U.S. Speaking personally, what do you think the right thing to do H-1B Visas is? And assuming you like the program, is there a way that we can split the issues and convince the American public that H-1Bs are good?

CF: I think first of all the H-1B Visa program is very important to the technology industry. The American people get concerned and understandably emotional about it when they perhaps don’t understand the differences between the H-1B Visa program and illegal immigration. So we have to make these differences clear because as McCain said, illegal immigration is a hugely emotional issue and it’s a very difficult issue in a state like California. So we have to be very open and specific about why the H-1B Visa program bears no resemblance to illegal immigration. We also then have to recognize that American workers all over this country are increasingly concerned about their ability to compete against foreign workers, whether those foreign workers are outside our country or whether they’re coming into our country. And I think that’s why McCain is so smart and so right to focus a lot of our platform on worker retraining. For example, to say “you know what we cannot leave workers behind in this country. We can’t have workers in their most productive years get laid off from a job that’s never coming back and not give them an opportunity to build new skills. And so I think If we can lay out for the American people a robust worker retraining program that really does give people an opportunity to compete for the new innovative jobs then they will have a different context in which to think about the H-1B visa program. If we don’t do that, I’m afraid people will say, “Well here’s another example of foreigners taking a job away from me.” But it’s clear to me that the H-1B Visa program is important and we have to continue to expanding it if we want our information technology industry to be the most competitive in the world.

MA: And in particular so many entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley were born somewhere other than the United States. And as many of those people as we can get to move here, whether it’s to go to school and here and work here or just start their companies here, it’s good for our economy. And I understand it’s a sensitive issue but…

CF: Well it’s good for our economy as you point out and I think the other thing we need to remind people of is that this country has been built on hardworking people who want to make a better life for themselves and their family coming here and staying here. And so it’s in our interest, as you point out, that people come here and choose to stay here and become American citizens and contribute to a productive economy.

MA: The 700-Mhz spectrum auctions that are going on right now under FCC Chairman Martin were hugely debated last year with Google pushing the issue in particular by saying, “We need a change in the way mobile is handled in the US. And in particular, whoever owns this spectrum has to allow third party applications. They have to allow people to switch their handsets and service providers. They have to lease out their service to other businesses that want to provide their own services on top of that at fair rates.” The FCC came back and took a lot of this, and I think Chairman Martin, to his credit, really pushed for this. But some of the people that work with him may have been a little bit more conservative on the issue. But it seems like maybe we haven’t gone far enough. And I wonder what your personal opinion is on handling, in particular, mobile spectrum allocations and what kind of playing field do we create for the companies doing business there? And AT&T has been lobbying to say the government should be hands off, and that’s fine, but these are effectively virtual monopolies once they’ve been allotted, and so a hands-off approach can sometimes lead to bad situations like I believe we have with mobile today. This is another one where Senator McCain was a little bit standoff-ish on this position, and I’d love to get some feedback from you on what do you think we should do there?

CF: First of all, again it’s my personal opinion and it’s a fascinating topic, and I think Senator McCain at this junction has just been focused on other issues. But I grew up in the telecommunications industry. I joined AT&T way back when it was Bell Systems in 1980. That’s how I know I’m much older than you are. And what’s going on with these mobile spectrum auctions reminds me of the fight that has gone on with landline infrastructure all along. And you know what the parameters of that fight are. The folks who are making the investments in building out the infrastructure want an opportunity to get a reasonable return on that investment. And the folks who are trying to put applications and services and features on that infrastructure want to get at it as cheaply as possible. That’s the tension.

MA: Just to address that point: Google has argued that, sure, there’s clearly a huge capital outlay that needs to be put in place to deliver a service. But a big part of the cost is paying for the allocations themselves upfront and clearly the government will make more money (as they did in ’94) by obviously putting fewer rules on these allocations, so do you really think – and you obviously know more about this than me – do you really think that not allowing these restrictions could actually cause companies not to put enough capital into the networks?

CF: First of all, I certainly agree with you that excessive regulation is never a good thing. But what’s worse for a business is an uncertain regulatory climate. So if you are a company and you’re having to make a decision to outlay billions of dollars, the worst thing for you is to not really know what the environment is going to be 2, 3, or 4 years from now. And so in the absence of certainty and predictability, folks who are investing in infrastructure are going to say, you know what, I want as much protection around my investment as possible because I don’t know what’s coming in the future. And so I think If we could create an environment – of course this is very difficult because it’s a politically charged subject – but if we could create an environment where investors could say “I understand the environment I’m going to be investing in, and it’s going to be predictable and stable,” then I think you would have an opportunity to lower some of those barriers. In the absence of certainty, investors will say “I want the maximum protection of my investment.” And companies like Google will say, ” I want the maximum access so that I can serve my customers as cheaply as possible.”

MA: A related issue is net neutrality, which is such an obscure topic for most of America but it’s a big touch point, as you know, in Silicon Valley. The Republicans seem to be on the side of stand off on the issue until we clearly see something go wrong. The Democrats, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are saying, hardcore, go at it, enact legislation to say net neutrality is law, and that’s just the way it has to be. Do you think there’s room on the Republican platform to take a more proactive approach ensuring a level playing field to all service providers?

CF: I think there’s room on the platform. I’m not making a prediction…

MA: I led you right to where I wanted you to go…

CF: Yea, I’m not making a prediction. John McCain has been very clear in saying that he would ban permanently taxation on the internet and taxation on mobile technologies, something the Democrats haven’t said by the way. And I think that he truly understands the role that these kinds of technologies play in growing the economy. But I don’t want to go much further than that because I haven’t had that conversation with him, but I would say that he has innovators at the heart of his policy making, as does the economic team.

MA: So who’s going to be the vice president?

CF: Well Mr. McCain will decide that and he will decide it in a timely fashion and it’s probably way too soon for him to decide that right now.

MA: Didn’t think I’d get that one out of you. I guess to sort of end I’d love to talk a little bit about personal technology with you but just to go back to some of the plans you have for reaching out to voters and financial donators on the internet, is there anything we can expect from you in the near future that you might announce? Anything that we can sort of be excited about or look forward to with the McCain campaign coming up?

CF: I can’t be too much more specific than I was before but let me just reiterate. We will be reaching out to a whole set of communities to remind people, and in some cases introduce people, to John McCain and to his policies and positions. So what that means is you’ll see John and others – myself included – coming to Silicon Valley. You’ll see him reaching out to the small business community, you’ll see him reaching out to Hispanics, to Asian Americans, going in perhaps unexpected places, going into the rustbelt to talk about the importance of innovation and the importance of job creation. I think it is in our interests as a party to get John McCain in front of as many people as possible because he is tremendously appealing and I think when we explain to people that the Republican Party really believes in giving as much money and choice and power to people as possible, instead of giving money and choice and power to government, I think that’s a message that people understand, it resonates with them and they can comprehend how that would make a difference around their own kitchen table or around their own small conference table in their business.

MA: So I think one thing that would be really great from Silicon Valley’s perspective – of course McCain and of course you coming here would be huge in gaining support – but one thing I saw that Senator Edwards did almost two years ago was he came to Silicon Valley just to meet with 30 bloggers and he met with them in a conference room and he did nothing but listen and asked about Second Life and YouTube and Facebook and MySpace, and sort of took some of that advice. And now his campaign obviously sort of went sideways but it certainly made Silicon Valley feel good – I don’t know what the ROI was on that for him. If you look at some of the stuff that Barack is doing; today for instance a campaign – I think actually MoveOn is sponsoring this – but it’s letting anybody make their own user generated television ad, and they’ve going to pick a winner and actually put it on national television. That kind of stuff, at least in Silicon Valley and at least on the social networks gets a huge amount of attention with very little upfront cost to the campaigns, and it just seems that with your experience, I’d urge you to go wild with your ideas and to try all the different things that I’m sure are on your mind and just go for it with that community because I think they are so many of them that are waiting for McCain to jump in like that.

CF: Thank you – I think it’s a terrific reminder, a terrific idea and you can expect us to follow up on that. I think you’re absolutely right. So we’re going to blame it on you! *laughter*

MA: Any kind of attention, I like. Are you a Mac or an HP user?

CF: I’m an HP user actually.

MA: What kind of phone do you use?

CF: Well now I have two BlackBerrys *laughter*

MA: So we need to put you on a Mac and an iPhone.

CF: Well you know it’s interesting; my husband uses the iPhone and he loves it. I have used it and I find it a little more difficult for business, and I find the screen a little tough; the touchscreen is tough for me, and actually a lot of women say that. The iPhone touch screen is hard for them and I don’t know why.

MA: But that’s irrelevant; it’s just the cool factor of having it. It’s clearly not…

CF: Hey hey! You know it’s not irrelevant; women purchase most of the technology today. *laughter* It matters! But anyway that’s what I’m using, a BlackBerry, an HP but some of my best friends use the Apple, it’s a wonderful system. I’m just still loyal to my company.

MA: And that’s admirable but I think if you come to Silicon Valley, I think pulling out an iPhone might be a good PR move for you guys, so just think about that. I’d also like to open up TechCrunch to you guys. Barack Obama did this – if you have something to say to the community, you’d like to say it directly, consider the blog an open platform to do that. I’d love to help you with that message whether it’s something you write, McCain writes, campaign writes, anything like that. And I really want to thank you for your time.

CF: Well listen – thank you Michael for yours and your ideas, and we will take you up on your last suggestion as well. We would love to be able to use TechCrunch as a platform, thank you for that.

MA: Good luck, congratulations on the new position, and whatever comes next for you after the campaign, good luck with that as well, I can’t wait to hear what you do next.

CF: Well thank you and happy birthday again, Michael, and we’re going to take you up on all your great ideas because I really appreciate them.

MA: Thanks very much.