If the thought of President Ben Carson didn't scare you already, try this: He has no idea what the debt limit is

Ben Carson is either the world's dimmest brain surgeon, or really good at playing the part

Published October 8, 2015 3:10PM (EDT)

  (AP/Carlos Osorio)
(AP/Carlos Osorio)

In my summary of the last Republican presidential debate, I pointed out that Ben Carson appears to know absolutely nothing about politics and policy. I’m now happy (and a little sad) to report that I was right. On Wednesday, the retired neurosurgeon spoke with Kai Ryssdal of the American Public Radio Program “Marketplace.” The conversation was wide-ranging but focused mostly on debt and the federal budget. One segment in particular is making the rounds.

Near the beginning of the interview, Ryssdal raised the issue of the debt limit. Specifically, he asked Carson whether he would support raising the debt limit. Carson’s answer was revealing to say the least:

Carson: Let me put it this way: if I were the president, I would not sign an increased budget. Absolutely would not do it. They would have to find a place to cut.

Ryssdal: To be clear, it's increasing the debt limit, not the budget, but I want to make sure I understand you. You'd let the United States default rather than raise the debt limit.

Carson: No, I would provide the kind of leadership that says, "Get on the stick guys, and stop messing around, and cut where you need to cut, because we're not raising any spending limits, period."

Ryssdal: I'm gonna try one more time, sir. This is debt that's already obligated. Would you not favor increasing the debt limit to pay the debts already incurred?

Carson: What I'm saying is what we have to do is restructure the way that we create debt. I mean if we continue along this, where does it stop? It never stops. You're always gonna ask the same question every year. And we're just gonna keep going down that pathway. That's one of the things I think that the people are tired of.

Ryssdal: I'm really trying not to be circular here, Dr. Carson, but if you're not gonna raise the debt limit and you're not gonna give specifics on what you're gonna cut, then how are we going to know what you are going to do as president of the United States?

Ladies and gentlemen, this is Ben Carson, one of the frontrunners in the race to become the Republican nominee for President of the United States. And he has no idea what the debt limit is. When you’re asked a question you don’t understand, you have two options: ask that the question be repeated while you think of something clever to say, or pretend that a different question was asked and answer that. Carson adopted the latter approach.

To be clear: this wasn’t one of those “gotcha" moments. Carson was asked a very simple question about a very relevant issue. Republicans have already brought the U.S. to the brink of default with their opposition to paying U.S. bills. This isn’t an obscure topic. And there are real consequences if we decline to raise the debt limit. As Ryssdal politely reminded him, the debt limit has nothing to do with current or future budgets; it’s about honoring the debts we’ve already incurred. How is it possible that a man running for president doesn’t know that?

Carson’s rambling ignorance, disturbing as it is, isn’t really the problem here. The problem is that his ignorance doesn’t matter, not in this campaign and not in that party. Carson, much like Trump, has catapulted to the top of the polls without even a passing knowledge of relevant issues. If you listen closely, in the debates and in this most recent interview, Carson never really says anything. If there’s a difference between Carson and, say, Sarah Palin, it’s that Carson looks more dignified when saying stupid things, but that’s about it. If you cut through his demeanor and reputation and just listen to what he says, you’ll hear nothing but air.

The point, of course, is that he’ll never pay a price for this in the Republican Party. This interview won't hurt him in the polls for the same reason his vacuous debate performances didn’t: The demand on the right for pleasant-sounding ignorance is too strong. I’m sure there are still a few adults left in the GOP, but they’ve lost control of their party. The base has won, and they’re getting exactly what they want: an empty vessel onto which they can project their idiocies and grievances. So Carson may be clueless, and this interview was truly embarrassing, but none of that matters. He’s still a frontrunner in the Republican race, however depressing that may be.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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2016 Elections Ben Carson Conservatism Debt Ceiling Ignorance The Right