No matter what the eventual outcome, this year's Republican primary race is sure to go down in history as one of the most bizarre political contests ever. Well, considering what happened in 2012, perhaps I should amend that with "... until the next one happens." We currently have two frontrunners, with everyone else running so far back in the pack they're ecstatic if they ever post a double-digit number in the polls (which few of them can manage to do, even in state-level polling). The two GOP frontrunners have, between them, a total of zero days of political experience. One is a megalomaniac billionaire and one is a world-class surgeon who seems to be trying to prove the old canard that doctors all think they've been promoted to God.
Plenty of ink has been spilled desperately trying to explain why Donald Trump is doing so well. Even more ink has been wasted trying to prove "Trump will eventually disappear," without a shred of evidence in the argument's favor. But it's only recently that the pundit world has even paid the slightest attention to Ben Carson. Which is odd, because his rise in the polls is even harder to fathom than The Donald's. Trump has bluster going for him -- in a huge way, as he might put it. His bombast is second to none, which he routinely showcases in the debates (another of which is happening Wednesday night). The American people have always loved a good showman, all the way back to P.T. Barnum. Consider that Minnesota and California -- pretty liberal states, mind you -- elected Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger not all that long ago to see the proof of this.
But Carson's rise is harder to explain. He's now leading the polls in Iowa, and while he's still trailing Trump nationally, he is slowly catching up (a claim absolutely none of the other GOP candidates can make). Carson is, in some ways, the anti-Trump. He's soft-spoken. He radiates calm (to the point of somnolence). He doesn't sound crazy. He is very hesitant to attack his rivals (especially Trump, although that could change, seeing as how Trump has started directing some attacks at Carson).
The best thing Carson has going for him is that he is demonstrably an intelligent guy. He used to be, in fact, a prominent member of one of the two professions that we commonly cite as the ideal for "careers which require extraordinary intelligence." The epitome of jobs requiring a high I.Q. has for a long time been either "brain surgeon" or "rocket scientist." Indeed, it's hard to imagine using any other job in the sentences: "It doesn't take a..." or: "It ain't exactly..." Ben Carson was not just a brain surgeon, but an exceptionally talented and pioneering brain surgeon. That's pretty strong evidence that he possesses the ability to read lots of very dense writing, memorize an astounding amount of data, and then process that data and turn it into benevolent action. A physicist might argue that brain surgery ain't rocket science, but it sure as heck is a job requiring a high degree of intelligence.
However, this also appears to be Carson's biggest problem. So far, he has exhibited nothing short of an astounding lack of comprehension (or perhaps, to be charitable, just plain laziness) on pretty much every subject he's tackled. The problem, so far, is that the media hasn't noticed. They're much more interested in attempting to expose Carson's extremism, which is actually a valid goal (but also a different subject than this column). Carson seems to be a walking, talking personification of Godwin's Law. Carson has two go-to comparisons that he'll deploy on any number of unrelated current issues: either America is going the way of the Nazis, or we're headed back to slavery. Those are pretty extreme examples to use, but they're both favorites of Carson, used by him on a routine basis. So far, this has been what the media has chosen to focus on when dissecting Carson's campaign.
This is a shame, because Carson has a flaw which is even bigger. His over-the-top Nazi and slavery comparisons actually play pretty well with the Republican primary audience, no matter how many times the pundits raise their metaphorical eyebrows over them. But what is harder to explain is the absolute incoherence of pretty much all of Carson's policy positions. Not unlike Trump, Carson seems satisfied with vague ideas heavy on ideology and sloganeering, but very light on actual details. But unlike Trump, Carson gets pretty flustered whenever anyone asks him about the missing details. Trump just bulls his way through any doubts interviewers have, but Carson can't really pull off the same trick. What happens instead is that he melts down.
I've noticed this in many interviews Carson has given over the past few months, but the only story that made any sort of a splash in the media (even the liberal-leaning media) was Carson's apparent confusion about what, exactly, the debt ceiling is. It was a two-day story on the liberal websites, and then it receded. Sooner or later, however, somebody's got to notice the lack of visible clothing on this Emperor-wannabe.
Just last weekend, Carson appeared on some Sunday morning political chat shows. Once again, the big takeaway story was how NBC's Chuck Todd got Carson to say some outrageous things about slavery. What was missed was Carson's astoundingly inept appearance on Fox News Sunday, where he was interviewed by Chris Wallace. Wallace -- one of the best interviewers on Fox, when it comes to pressuring conservatives to answer their critics -- took a deep dive into Carson's new plan for health insurance.
This is Carson's second plan for replacing Obamacare, mind you. Carson told Wallace over and over again that his plan of a few months ago is no longer operative, because he had since talked to some people and refined it into a new plan. His old plan would have entirely killed off Medicare and Medicaid. His new plan -- using some fiscal magic that Carson was unable to explain -- does not do so. Now Carson would only propose his plan as a choice people would have, because he doesn't want to be all Obama-ish and force people into anything. His problem is that he wants to pay for his new plan using the money that now goes to Medicare and Medicaid.
Wallace, to his credit, tried multiple times to point out that medical savings accounts (Carson's grand answer to pretty much everything) are great things to have if you have the money for them. Rich people love medical savings accounts, because it is a big tax write-off for them. But Wallace pressed Carson on how they'd work for the indigent and the middle class, and Carson immediately got lost in the weeds and couldn't offer up a rational explanation of how his plan was supposed to work.
These weren't "gotcha" questions like who is the leader of some country Americans would be hard-pressed to find on a map. Wallace was questioning Carson on his own policy plan. Carson is a medical doctor -- this is supposed to be within his area of expertise. This plan has already been revised, so it should be safe to assume that Carson was instrumental in making changes to it. And yet Carson couldn't explain it -- to a conservative member of the media on Fox News (he can't exactly explain this away as some sort of liberal media trap).
Watch the video (or read the transcript) if you think I'm exaggerating the awfulness of Carson's floundering. This isn't the first time Carson has stumbled over any question that digs deeper than surface-level talking points. He's done so in many interviews, in fact, but so far most people haven't noticed. He reminds me of nothing more than a slightly-more-articulate version of Sarah Palin. He loves the word-salad approach to answering questions, and he's obviously got his lines down (better than Palin ever managed), at least on this level. But when asked to go any deeper, Carson soon lapses into incoherence. On pretty much any subject anyone asks him about.
If Ben Carson experiences a collapse in his support, it's not going to be for some Nazi or slavery comparison. The Republican base can pretty much absorb those, at least in states like Iowa. No, if Ben torpedoes his campaign by saying something shocking, it's likely going to be because he says something which exposes his absolute incompetence on some subject near and dear to Republican voters' hearts. The only way this is likely to happen is if it is pointed out by another conservative -- say, during a debate.
The third Republican presidential debate is scheduled for this Wednesday. So far, the candidates who have launched full-frontal attacks on Donald Trump haven't done so well. They've all seen their poll numbers fall immediately after such attacks, in fact. At least so far, it's been a losing game for Trump's attackers. So we might see a shift on Wednesday night to attacking Ben Carson, rather than Trump. If Trump ever does collapse, right now Ben Carson is poised to take the lead. And while Carson has risen, almost all the second-tier Republicans have fallen back. Regaining some voter support might be seen as easier to do by taking down Carson than taking on Trump. To say nothing of the fact that Trump himself seems slightly worried by Carson now, so Trump might actually lead the attacks against Ben this Wednesday.
If Republican candidates do decide to target Carson, they're not going to do so by calling him an extremist. After all, there are a whole bunch of extremist Republican voters out there, and attacking their own beliefs isn't exactly the way to build a candidate's base support (at least, not in today's Republican Party). What's left is attacking Carson's policy ideas. Which is actually pretty easy to do, even for a conservative. Take a look at pretty much any interview he's been in where he's had to defend his positions in a substantive way -- each time, he looks weak and flustered. So my guess is that a few Republican candidates will press Carson hard on his inconsistencies Wednesday night. After all, poking holes in Carson's arguments is not exactly brain surgery.
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