A year before the first GOP presidential debate, the thought that retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson could be anything more than comic relief in the 2016 presidential contest was pure delusionary. But Carson is not only still around in the GOP's crowded presidential field, he, like Donald Trump, is gapping the supposedly more serious GOP contenders in poll numbers. The bigger surprise is that Carson actually has become something of a minor cash cow in raising money and there's much talk of super PACs for Carson in the works.
This is pretty heady stuff for a candidate who before Trump started zipping out a stream of silly, outrageous zingers on immigration and women, and anything else that came to mind, had the franchise on spouting ridiculous inanities. Carson hasn't exactly reformed his ways and become the model of civility in expression, witness his blast of the Iran treaty deal as anti-Semitic. He's also prompted more than a few eyes to roll with his inference that Planned Parenthood is some kind of nefarious conspiracy to damp down the black population.
This stock Carson silliness won't mean much, though, if the poll number that Carson tabs in Iowa holds up. It shows him with a solid numbers base to build on in the state. This is crucial. The first out the box Iowa primary is the traditional make or break primary for Democratic and GOP presidential candidates. Carson could have political strengths there that Trump can't hope for. There's a strong core of ultra-conservatives, with an evangelical bent there. They can be rebellious and independent when it comes to backing a candidate willing to buck the party regulars. If Carson is willing to spend money, time, build a real party organization in the state, and come up with a modicum of coherent policy initiatives, he could actually be the surprise in the primary. A strong showing here would put a stiff wind in his campaign sails in other primary states especially in the South where his act could play even bigger and better.
Much of this depends on Carson. He's stuck around this long mostly because he's black, has a compelling rags to success, up-by-the-bootstraps story and he could always be trotted out to take heavy-handed shots at President Obama. He's also been willing to take chances.
He took his travelling act to Harlem recently and held forth at Harlem's famed Sylvia's Restaurant. He then walked the block spouting his standard platitude about how liberal, Democratic polices have supposedly failed blacks and especially the black poor. This won't win him any new black converts to the GOP. But it did show that he's capable of delivering his retrograde anti-government message to someone other than fawning packs of GOP ultraconservatives.
Carson has turned this tactic into a studied art with black conservatives such as Clarence Thomas. Carson, though, has always made far better copy than the Sphinx-like Thomas, because, unlike Thomas, Carson could always be counted on to say something just ludicrous enough to get attention.
Carson's candidacy fits a triple bill. He gets even more attention for the GOP. He's African-American with that great personal story and this seemingly gives lie to the notion that the GOP is strictly a no-nothing party chock full of unreconstructed bigots. The notion of Carson as a presidential candidate touches a deep, dark and throbbing pulse among legions of ultraconservatives who think that Obama and many Democrats are communists, that gays are immoral, and that the healthcare-reform law is "slavery," as Carson infamously quipped, meaning a tyrannical intrusion by big government into Americans' lives. Mainstream GOP leaders can't utter this idiocy. They must always give the appearance that they are above the dirty, muddy, hate-slinging fray, so they leave it to a well-paid stalking horse like Carson, and to some extent Trump, to do their dirty work for them.
The road to the 2016 GOP presidential nomination will be a knock-down, drag-out, bruising, low-intensity war. The main contenders Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and a cluster of popular GOP governors have money, means, and a dedicated, entrenched following. They have wooed and courted the key state party leaders and potential party delegates who will make or break a candidate in the key party primaries later next year. Their work has been ongoing, and it requires a team of professional, connected and financially stout party officials to do the hard leg work required. A well-placed Carson sound bite or pithy remark won't cut it. He'll also need a program.
Carson's poll surge, though, does show that he's got the eye and ear of legions of GOP rank and file voters. And in a season when voters again seem sick of the business as usual political crowd in Washington, and want some real excitement on the political stump, Carson may have more shelf life than he deserves. That's enough to insure that Carson, for now anyway, is no laughing matter.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Los Angeles and KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.