Ben Carson: I Am Not a Politician

Ben Carson 2016 Presdential Candidate

Photo courtesy of Reuters/CPAC

Ben Carson: I Am Not a Politician
| published May 5, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff writers

A trio of potential Republican candidates for the White House has made their intentions official this week, joining an already crowded, heavyweight field of contenders.

Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor whose hometown happens to be Hope, Arkansas—the same stomping ground of Bill Clinton—says he may be uniquely qualified to run against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. Huckabee says he understands how the Clinton’s operate (“They play to win,” he has said). And Huckabee says his political survival is testament to his staying power. Huckabee was also the surprise wild card factor in 2008, performing much better than expected in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, giving him added credibility among the GOP faithful, and establishing a wide attraction for social conservatives.

Carly Fiorina, a former top executive with AT&T, Lucent Technology, and later CEO of Hewlett-Packard, also says she is uniquely qualified to do battle with Hillary Clinton. A longtime foe of Clinton policy, Fiorina can challenge Clinton in debates and on the campaign trail using ordnance unavailable to the male candidates, and her long personal story of rising through the workforce from the job of secretary to chief executive contrasts neatly—she hopes—to Clinton’s ascension through the often muddy business of law firms and politics. Fiorina can also talk about jobs and the workplace in the real sense, not in the abstract: she has personally hired people, just as she has fired them.

But pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, who also spends much of his time as an author and commentator, says that too many of the candidates now in the 2016 race—of both parties—are packaged and slick, and often caught up in the pointless show business side. Though he doesn’t mention recent arrivals like Huckabee or Fiorina by name, the Detroit native clearly has other well-known last names in his sights: Obama, Biden, and of course Clinton and Bush.

Carson has been a favorite of some conservatives and some Tea Party faithful for several years, and his books have become best sellers. He is also an outspoken critic of President Barack Obama and a longtime opponent of Obamacare (The Affordable Care Act). Carson, who established himself famously at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast by making remarks critical of Obama—who was sitting just a few feet away—has also cultivated frequent appearances on television news shows (as has Huckabee, who recently left Fox News to launch his candidacy). Ever since, Carson has drawn fans from a variety of center-right streams: social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, Tea Partiers, and anti-Obamacare foot soldiers.

Carson’s personal narrative is one which other Republicans will find hard to trump. Carson and his brother were raised by a single mom who only had a third grade education. The family lived in a tough, crime-ridden neighborhood.  After a less-than-stellar—even mediocre—performance in his early grades, Carson discovered the joy of reading, and by high school he was near the top of his class. He worked variously as a bank teller, a school bus driver, a crane operator, and x-ray technician before attending University of Michigan medical school. Later, he would become a top surgeon at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where in 1987 he performed the world’s first successful separation of Siamese twins joined at the head. In 2001 he was selected as one the country’s 20 top physicians and scientists by CNN and Time magazine. He has received top awards from the White House and the NAACP, as well as a variety of top honors from scientific and medical societies.

Politically, Carson sees himself as a genuine problem solver, and considers his deep background as a neurosurgeon, as well as his commitment to education as a tool for advancement, as examples of his determination to approach challenges in unconventional ways. For these reasons, he can be expected to differentiate himself from the other candidates in the room when GOP debates began later this year. He also considers himself far more than the token African American among the current crop of presidential contenders—meaning that although Alan Keyes and Herman Cain may have blazed an earlier path in the GOP for black candidates, Carson regards himself as more than a novelty. He will almost certainly cast himself as an outsider to the typical political gamesmanship, and he can be expected to present himself as a foil—and a genuine alternative—to what may turn into a dynastic rematch between the competing clans of Bushes and Clintons.

His remarks as recently as this week indicate that—for now at least—he intends to attack politics-as-usual and the expedients of Washington as unacceptable to the nation’s progress.

“I can name a lot of people in politics who have been there all their lives,” Carson told an audience in Detroit on Monday, “and you probably wouldn’t want them to polish your shoe. We need to be smart enough to think for ourselves.”

Carson also makes little concession to his sometimes outward political-incorrectness, and indeed some of his statements have misfired badly with the media and with liberals. He once infamously characterized President Obama as “a psychopath.” Though his books are smooth, polished, and elegantly phrased, his public comments can sometimes rile the Left, and make for endless grist for the mill at MSNBC and other liberal media outlets. In a discussion with Sean Hannity on Fox, Carson once lumped same-sex marriage in with sex offenders and bestiality, more-or-less in the same sentence, a comment he was forced to rephrase a few days later. Carson has also rankled the sensibilities of progressive groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center for his comparisons of Obamacare with the dictatorial practices of totalitarian regimes, and his comparisons of social programs by liberal government to a form of benign slavery. Carson once described Obamacare as “the worst thing that has happened in this country since slavery,” a statement which later required much backpedalling by Carson.

Much of this wins him the adoration of some conservative Republicans, but much of it can also can be expected to be thrown back at him if he were to win the GOP nomination and then face a Democrat in the general election. Still, Carson makes few concessions toward political correctness, and often lambasts the mainstream media for its insistence on regulating the language of public debates. Such unvarnished anti-media sentiments generally keep him popular among social conservatives and conservative commentators.

His long term issues will include a problem with attracting middle of the road voters and independent voters, not to mention unpopularity among center-left voters.

But in the short term Carson’s main liability, like that of his most recent GOP competitor Carly Fiorina, will be name low recognition. Though Carson’s followers are loyal and enthusiastic, they are limited in strength. In addition, Carson must overcome deep splintering by other social conservatives, Tea Party advocates, fiscal conservatives, and religious conservatives whose preferences are already divided between other, better-known candidates, like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and now former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. With other conservatives considering entering the fray—such as Indiana Governor Mike Pence and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, Carson will face tough competition—and lots of it.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Huckabee and Fiorina Join Crowded 2016 Race; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; May 4, 2015.

Will Bush Outsource Campaign Work?; Thursday Review; April 23, 2015.