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 contest was purely delusional. But Carson is not only still around in the GOP’s crowded presidential field; he 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 in the works.
This is pretty heady stuff for a candidate who, before Donald Trump started zipping out a stream of silly, outrageous zingers on immigration, women and anything else that came to mind, had the franchise on spouting inanities. Carson hasn’t exactly reformed his ways and become the model of civility. 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 tamp down the black population.
This stock silliness won’t mean much, though, if the poll numbers that Carson tabs in Iowa hold up. In that state he has a solid numbers base to build on. This is crucial. The Iowa primary is the traditional make or break primary contest for Democratic and GOP presidential candidates. Carson could have political strengths there that Trump can’t hope for, with the state’s core of ultra-conservatives with an evangelical bent. These are people who can be rebellious and independent when it comes to backing candidates 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’s sails in other primary states, especially in the South, where his act could be even more popular.
Much of this depends on Carson. He’s stuck around this long mostly because he’s black, has a compelling rags-to-riches story and could always be trotted out to take heavy-handed shots at President Obama. He’s also been willing to take chances. He took his message to Harlem recently, to famed Sylvia’s Restaurant. He then walked the block spouting his standard platitudes 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 Supreme Court Justice 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 because he’s African American with that great personal story, and this seemingly gives lie to the perception that the GOP is chock full of unreconstructed bigots. The notion of Carson as a presidential candidate touches a deep, dark, throbbing pulse among legions of ultraconservatives who think that Obama and many Democrats are communists, that gays are immoral, and that the health care 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 low-intensity war. Main contenders Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and a cluster of popular GOP governors have money, means and dedicated followings. 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 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, however, does show that he’s got the eyes and ears 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, for now anyway, Carson is no laughing matter.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. A frequent MSNBC contributor, he is s an associate editor of New America Media and 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 in Los Angeles and KPFK 90.7-FM, Los Angeles, and the Pacifica Network.