Why some Republicans think a charismatic brain surgeon can win the White House.
Between now and the presidential primary season, expect to hear more about Ben Carson. Though unknown to many Americans, the retired brain surgeon is a conservative pin-up. He was raised by a black single mother in Detroit, almost flunked out of school and nearly stabbed a teenage rival to death, before finding God, heading to Yale and becoming a paediatric neurosurgeon. He has written several books about his life–one became a TV film (Dr Carson was played by Cuba Gooding junior).
Political celebrity came in 2013 when the doctor used a speech to a National Prayer Breakfast to lecture a stony-faced Barack Obama, sitting a few feet away, about the national debt, those who treat poverty as an excuse for failure and the “horrible” menace of political correctness. A Fox News TV contract followed, and many invitations to address conservative gatherings.
Fans want to draft Dr Carson to run for the presidency in 2016. They call him a citizen-statesman for an anti-politics age. They praise his philanthropy (he runs a scholarship fund for star pupils in poor schools), and his appeal to churchgoing, socially conservative voters of all races. Their idol has said that he might run “if the Lord grabbed me by the collar and made me”. Some are willing to try more earthly interventions.
According to official filings, the recently-formed National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee (slogan: “Run Ben Run!”) raised $US1.2m dollars in the last two months of 2013. The committee, which operates without sanction from Dr Carson, boasts that it has raised another $US1.6m since. The committee’s co-founder, Vernon Robinson, makes an unblushing, race-based pitch. Democrats have scooped about 90% of the black vote in presidential elections since 2000, helping to offset a consistent Republican lead among whites. In 2016, argues Mr Robinson, Dr Carson has only to take 17% of the black vote and “Hillary loses every swing state in the country”.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a three-day shindig attracting big-name Republicans that ended on March 8th, Dr Carson was given a prominent speaking slot. He drew cheers with a talk that delivered partisan attacks (eg, Obamacare is a “massive” government power-grab) in a paediatrician’s mild tones (a favourite Carson insult is to call foes “dummies”). CPAC attracts a young crowd with a libertarian bent: think students in blazers and bow-ties, and pamphlets headed “How to debate your teacher (and win!)”.
Still, Carson fans were excited when their man came third in a presidential straw poll of CPAC-goers, behind Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz but beating heavyweights such as Senator Marco Rubio, Governor Chris Christie and Representative Paul Ryan. It was a revealing moment, but not because Dr Carson can win the White House. To be clear, he will not even win the presidential nomination. His rise is interesting because of what it says about Republicans today.
Republicans have flirted before with self-made men from outside politics. Remember Herman Cain, the pizza tycoon whose folksy manner and populist tax plans propelled him to giddy heights in 2011, before sex scandals dragged him down and out of the presidential primaries? Dr Carson is no Herman Cain. Before the 2012 election Republican activists looked at a string of odd-bods and firebrands, casting about for someone, anyone, who thrilled them more than their eventual nominee, Mitt Romney.
This time Republicans seem more sober-minded. A bit unexpectedly, their current mood takes Lexington back to early 2004, and to (cold, snowy) memories of covering New Hampshire’s Democratic presidential primary. Back then it was fractious Democrats who were united by their loathing of the sitting president–seeing George W. Bush as not just wrong-headed but un-American and dangerous. Yet even as Democrats told themselves that they represented America’s true values, they were troubled by doubts about their ability to win overall majorities in a country that was stubbornly hostile to their arguments.
Their first response was to blame their opponents and the media for sowing division and fear (just as Republicans do today). Their second response was to fret about their bench of White House contenders–a line-up of lightweights, shrill partisans and ponderous elder statesmen.
Democrats sought a quick fix: candidates with sterling military records to reassure a nation at war. In the end that meant picking John Kerry, whose war service proved less helpful than hoped. But for a period, notably around New Hampshire’s primary, wild hopes were pinned on Wesley Clark, a retired four-star general with no political experience.
The myth of the heroic outsider
A decade on, Republicans seem equally unconvinced by their likely presidential contenders, and Dr Carson has the makings of a new Wesley Clark: a successful man, unready for the blowtorch scrutiny of politics. Some of his views might startle his party: for example, he favours stiff tariffs on manufactured imports. And he is already proving thin-skinned. At CPAC, he accused the press of distorting what he had meant when he called Obamacare the worst thing to happen in America “since slavery”, or when he seemed to equate gay-marriage advocates with child-molesters.
Republicans are bullish about November’s mid-term elections, when turnouts are usually low and the electorate skews whiter, older and more conservative. However, the more thoughtful know that the race for the White House in 2016 will be far harder. Swelling ranks of non-white and younger voters have never enjoyed the American dream of rising living standards. Their pessimism poses a test for Republicans whose creed is that hard work leads to success, if government will only get out of the way.
Alas, too many conservatives–like Democrats in 2004–are too blinded by dislike of the president to grasp the limits of their own popularity. Hence their desire for quick fixes, as represented by folk like Dr Carson. But quick fixes seldom work.
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