Ben Carson has been an official candidate for the presidency for a week now, and already he’s running into some difficulties. Being a gadfly presidential flirt who just hovers around the edges of a campaign in order to soak up some attention is nice because there’s no real incentive on the part of reporters to treat you all that seriously. But once you say those special words – “I am a candidate for president” – people suddenly start asking you policy questions and try to pin you down on thorny, controversial issues. And Carson, whose political identity and stardom are based entirely on his often outlandish attacks on President Obama, is hilariously unprepared to be an official candidate for the presidency.
Last week, he sat down for an interview with CNBC’s John Harwood who laid down a series of rakes for Carson to step on, and Carson trod upon them with palpable gusto. “It sounds as if your preferred alternative, both to Obamacare and to Medicare, is a system of self-reliance built around health savings accounts,” Harwood said, referring to Carson’s terrible healthcare plan. “Do you think that's something you could make happen politically? Medicare is pretty popular.”
Now, Republicans aren’t the biggest fans of Medicare, and their big dream is to one day privatize it. The price they pay for having this dream is withering political fire from Democrats who justifiably attack them for wanting to muck with a successful and popular entitlement program that benefits an electorally active segment of the population. Carson is putting it right out there and saying he wants to get rid of Medicare altogether and replace it with federally subsidized health savings accounts.
As Harwood intimated, that’s a politically radioactive position. So what’s Carson’s justification for this radical change to healthcare policy? Quite literally, freedom. “When people are able to see how much more freedom they will have, and how much more flexibility they will have, and how much more choice they would have, I think it's going to be a no-brainer,” Carson said.
I cannot wait for Carson to take this pitch down to The Villages and watch him explain to a gaggle of retirees how he’s going to eliminate Medicare and replace it with freedom. It might impel him to rethink that “no-brainer” business.
Moving on from health policy, Harwood asked Carson about some of the more colorful things he’s said about Barack Obama in recent years.
HARWOOD: Obama, you referred to him as a “psychopath.” What did you mean by that?
CARSON: I said he reminds you of a psychopath.
HARWOOD: And? How?
CARSON: Because they tend to be extremely smooth, charming people who can tell a lie to your face with complete – it looks like sincerity, even though they know it's a lie.
HARWOOD: Do you think he’s a liar?
CARSON: Well, I think he knows full well the unemployment rate is not 5.5 percent. He knows that. He knows that people who are not well-informed will swallow it hook, line, and sinker.
I love this exchange so much. Carson happily volunteers that Obama is, in his view, reminiscent of a “psychopath.” He has no problem saying that the president behaves in ways that bring to mind serial killers and other deranged criminals. But when Harwood asks if he thinks Obama is a “liar,” a far less inflammatory epithet, Carson quails and starts dancing around it. Psychopath? Sure! Liar? Ehhhhh…
As for his take on the unemployment rate, it’s both incoherent and conspiratorial. The unemployment rate is not a trick. It’s just a measurement – one of many – that describes the employment situation in the country. Presidents before Barack Obama used it to gauge their administration’s economic performance, and Obama’s successors will do the same.
And that brings us to this fun little back-and-forth in which Harwood tries to get Carson to explain which “other groups” he thinks will come forward to claim marriage rights should the Supreme Court strike down same-sex marriage bans.
Again, I’m struck by the choices Carson makes when it comes to volunteering information. He’ll talk about Obama being a "psychopath" for days. But if you ask him who he thinks is going to jump on the marriage-rights bandwagon, he plays this “you know what I’m talking about [wink wink]” game and ends up looking like he’s afraid of his own opinions. “I’m just asking the question!” he insists, employing a classic dodge used by cable pundits to put an opinion out there without actually affirmatively stating it. I mean, he’s already on record stating that gay marriage is part of a neo-Marxist plot to “bring America down” and establish a “New World Order,” so why not embrace the rest of his anti-gay rhetorical menagerie?
Carson clearly has no clue what’s expected of him now that he’s directly under the spotlight. He still hasn’t figured out how to handle audiences and interviewers who aren’t of a similar ideological bent. Carson likes to boast that he’s not a politician, and that his lack of political experience makes him an ideal candidate for the presidency. The reality is that he’s just bad at politics.