Dr. Ben Carson, the retired chief of Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, has experienced a meteoric rise in conservative political circles since he upstaged President Barack Obama with a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. Carson’s mild mannered delivery of critiques of the Obama-nation coming from a faith filled physician with a compelling personal story stole the show.
Carson’s remarks before the National Prayer Breakfast, as well as CPAC and the Faith and Freedom Coalition spawned a “Draft Ben Carson” campaign, which raised nearly $12 million in a year. The “Run Ben Run” movement played upon peoples’ enthusiasm for a thoughtful prospective politician’s candidacy, but the unaffiliated Super PAC had dubious spending patterns, rolling most of the garnered donations back into the fundraising operation.
In early March 2015, Dr. Carson announced that he was forming an Exploratory Presidential Campaign Committee, which was all but a pro-forma announcement of a White House run. Since then, Dr. Carson has made numerous media appearances which has inspired increased scrutiny.
Just after the Exploratory Committee announcement, Dr. Carson was drawn into a debate on CNN’s “New Day” with Chris Cuomo on whether homosexuality is a choice. Carson commented that convicts "go into prison straight -- and when they come out, they're gay. So, did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question," This view syncs with Dr. Carson’s Seventh Day Adventist background and traditional marriage premises but did little to advance his candidacy.
Shortly afterwards, Carson backtracked on the statement saying "I realized that my choice of language does not reflect fully my heart on gay issues." Later, Carson declared that he would no longer speak about gay issues. But the damage had already been done. Glenn Beck called this quote “the dumbest thing I’ve every heard”, which led Beck to declare that Carson’s candidacy was over just as it begun. That may have been hyperbole, but it was unwise for Dr. Carson to touch today’s third rail of politics in a wonton way. Carson squandered his wider introduction to the public by allowing himself to be painted a bigot for a peripheral point.
As part of the media barnstorming effort, Dr. Carson engaged in a thoughtful radio interview with Hugh Hewitt, a politically center right Salem Radio host who prides himself on not conducting ambush interviews. Since the 2016 Presidential Campaign cycle may well pivot on foreign policy issues, Hewitt asked about Russian provocations and Western response. When asked how NATO should respond if Putin made a move on the Baltic States would we go to war, Dr. Carson responded: “Well, if we have them involved in NATO. We need to convince them to get involved in NATO and strengthen NATO”.
Hewitt later followed up on an inference that Carson did not seem aware that the Baltic States were part of NATO. Dr. Carson rejoined: “Well, when you were saying Baltic state, I thought you were continuing our conversation about the former components of the Soviet Union. Obviously, there’s only three Baltic states.” Unfortunately that clarification was as clear as mud as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were former components of the Soviet Union and have some ethnic Russian speaking communities still residing there (which was the pretext for Russia effectively seizing Crimea and try to take the Donbass). Hewitt is known for in-depth interviews and going into the proverbial weeds to explore military issues. Carson’s ignorant answers on defending our Baltic State NATO partners exposes a serious chink in his campaign armor and exhibited a lack a preparation.
Dr. Carson granted a long form interview with GQ magazine which was conducted at Armstrong Williams abode. The resulting piece from Jason Zengerle : “What if Sarah Palin were a brain surgeon?” frames Dr. Carson as the Tea Party’s great White House hope, while sliming him with the Alinsky inspired animus associated Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK). The pull quote from Carson’s GQ interview involved Armstrong Williams egging on Ben Carson to opine on Obama’s optics. The soft spoken Dr. Carson pronounced: “Like most psychopaths--that’s why they’re successful. That’s the way they look. They all look great...he's trying to sell what he thinks is not true. He’s sitting there saying, ‘These Americans are so stupid, I can tell them anything.’”
Dr. Carson is a renowned neurosurgeon, not a psychiatrist, so taking a swipe at President Obama as a psychopath is off the mark. Such a distant diagnosis from Charles Krauthammer (who was trained as a psychiatrist) seems reasonable, but from Dr. Carson it seems like a harsh characterization. Part of Carson’s political charm is his mild mannered air of authority. Being bombastic by characterizing the Obama obsession with optics and fooling “idiotic” Americans sacrifices this strength. Moreover, this pugilistic “psychopath” trope was nothing new and unlikely to garner much new support.
Ben Carson has proudly declared: “I'm not a politician and that I never intend to become a politician. Even if I'm elected to office, I'm not going to be a politician because they tend to do things that are politically expedient. And I'm not trying to do things that are politically correct.” In this day and age, not being considered a Beltway Establishment politician is an advantage to base voters who tire of political lies and political correctness.
However Dr. Carson is making plenty of rookie mistakes in on the political field. Allowing a Draft movement to exploit donations which never really make it to the actual campaign may dismay donors. Opining on hot button issues like homosexuality without successfully connecting it to preserving traditional marriage, which should really be an ancillary campaign issue in the first place. Taking partisan pot shots like labeling the incumbent a psychopath which mars his soft spoken demeanor and popular appeal. Giving extensive access to media outlets like CNN and GQ on the proto campaign roll out which would play gotcha journalism. Then there is the sin of going on friendly media like Hugh Hewitt unprepared, exposing a key weakness of the candidacy, namely foreign policy chops.
Dr. Carson was no stranger to making controversial statements, such as his interview with conservative radio firebrand Mark Levin in which an animated Dr. Carson called white liberals the worst type of racists for putting blacks in a box.
That perspective may be provocative and perspicacious as a pundit, but it sounds like another thing altogether on the campaign trail, especially with spin coming from other campaigns' opposition research laundered through the compliant press.
As Dr. Carson continues to move closer to declaring his candidacy for the Republican Presidential nomination, he has come out swinging for the fences. Unfortunately, he seems to be off balance for some of the pitches and creating lots of wind. To mix sports analogies, the off balance stance on the campaign hustings makes him prone for sucker punches from the Lamestream Media.
Dr. Carson could make great contributions to shaping the campaign conversation in the 2016 Cycle. His tremendous personal story shatters the liberal labeling of Republicans as the party for old white men. Dr. Carson’s faith history underscores a potential appeal to evangelical voters, which would be key to victory in the Iowa Caucuses. As a physician, he would be given great credence for critiquing Obamacare. So Dr. Carson should eschew some of his ardor against being a politician and get good advice which best represents his brand as a thoughtful outsider who will not abandon promises because it is politically expedient.