If you want a better idea about what Dr. Ben Carson sees as the driving force behind his presidential campaign-in-waiting, perhaps look no further than Carson’s own explanation for his rise in popularity on the conservative political circuit: “It’s not so much me as it is the courage to say what needs to be said.”
In today’s parlance, that’s what they’d probably call a “humblebrag.”
But it’s what Carson told me Monday at the Capitol Hill office of his business manager and political adviser, Armstrong Williams, while casually grabbing lunch in between Martin Luther King Jr. holiday appearances—including a live town hall meeting on the state of American race relations, where Carson shared the stage with attorney Benjamin Crump, who has represented the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice.
It’s a statement that actually makes Carson’s occasional suggestions that he may be divinely inspired to run for president sound almost modest by comparison.
Technically, he’s still making up his mind about 2016. But on Monday, it sounded to me a lot like his hat is already in the ring.
As the New York Times reported last week, millions of dollars are pouring in to the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee—an outfit that’s not officially affiliated with Carson but is steaming along under the slogan “Run Ben, Run.” He’s got his own political action committee, the USA First PAC, and he’s on the cover of this month’s Weekly Standard, with the headline, “Taking Ben Carson Seriously.”
Which seems to frame the question: Is Carson for real? I’ve questioned his readiness for prime time a number of times—just read here and here—based, among other things, on the fact that he’s never run for or held office. He’s encountered a series of speed bumps, like BuzzFeed’s recent report about Carson’s failure to properly attribute sources in his book America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Country Great, or the National Review’s recent story about Carson’s too-close-for-comfort relationship with a medical supplement company that’s been sued for false statements about its products. Or the fact that it now looks likely that if he runs, he’d compete with GOP heavyweights like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush.
Carson, though, is undaunted by the experience question and brings new meaning to the stereotype that doctors are supremely self-confident, saying, with reference to his potential rivals, that it would be “a lot harder for somebody who’s a governor or a senator to learn how to take out a brain tumor than it’s gonna be for me to learn how to do what a governor or a senator does.”
Here are some of the other things he had to say:
On the idea of a flat tax: “You make $10 billion, you pay a billion. You make $10, you pay $1. It’s hard for me to understand how that’s unfair.”
On the social safety net: “A safety net is reasonable—a dependent way of life is not.”
On whether or not his infamous remark that Obamacare is “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery” is offensive: “I can see how it can be revved up” that way, “but it’s not that slavery wasn’t so bad, it’s that Obamacare is so bad.”
On the theory, touted by his supporters, that he can win a general election by winning 17 percent of the black vote: “I don’t even think about those numbers.”
He called himself “an existential threat to the progressive movement” and “a threat to the Al Sharptons of the world—people who feast on victimization.”
Asked to respond, Sharpton said that Carson “is absolutely no threat to me. His threat is that he will prove that the right wing will not resonate with the majority of African Americans. Because the facts are what they are—and they are that we are disproportionately discriminated against in every aspect of American life. That’s not victimization. And unless they address those facts, they will not resonate with the majority of people who live in that reality.”
In our conversation, though, Carson directed more of his criticism toward President Barack Obama.
In Obama’s 2004 speech, declaring that he didn’t see a red or blue America, only the United States of America, Obama appealed to Americans across the spectrum, but now, Carson said, “Instead what you get is, ‘These rich people are keeping you from getting this,’ and, you know, division all the time. You know, the police act badly and they’re against you. So, you don’t really see this theme that was so attractive when he was running, of bringing people together.
“You know,” Carson continued, “he’s going to be advocating for more redistribution in his State of the Union tomorrow. Has no chance of getting it through a Republican Congress, so why would he do it? For the purpose of stoking up dissension and division—is that really what a good leader does?”
When asked how a hypothetical President Ben Carson State of the Union might sound different, he said that he’d leverage the bully pulpit of the presidency “to try to get business and industry and Wall Street and churches and all these people to invest in their fellow human beings.” One way to do that, he said, would be to call for a domestic microlending program modeled on the work of 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. But when I asked if that’s accomplished via legislation, he said, “No,” clarifying that “you call for it,” but “it really needs to be a private-sector thing.”
From there he segued to the ongoing controversy in Ferguson, Mo.: “You see, these people really don’t know the police. The police don’t know them.” Leading Carson to cite a potential solution proposed by Ed Mullins, leader of the New York City Police Department’s Sergeants Benevolent Association—athletic leagues where police and citizens compete in friendly intramural games, wherein “they’d get to know each other.”
“You know, when you get to know somebody, all of a sudden, the horns disappear,” he said.
Perhaps the most eye-opening part of our discussion came when we were talking about Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman and Florida’s “Stand your ground” law, which Carson said was generally “a good thing,” but that he’d like to see “security people” get better training and use Tasers. “Think about it,” he said, circling back to Ferguson. “If Michael Brown had been tased, maybe we wouldn’t have this situation. Same thing with Eric Garner. I mean, do we always have to resort, you know, to lethal things? Of course, now, Eric Garner’s case, they weren’t trying to use lethal force. I think that was an accident.”
When I asked him to clarify “accident,” he said, “I don’t think they meant to kill him, by any stretch of imagination.” And when I said, OK, but it seemed like NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo did appear to intend to apply a choke hold, Carson replied, “I don’t agree with the way it was done. That was my whole point.”
On lowering the deficit, Carson said, “I can tell you exactly what I would cut”: “I would cut the size of government,” adding, “by attrition. Thousands of government employees retire every year. I wouldn’t replace them. You can shift people from one department to another to cover critical positions, you know, but if you do that for four or five years, you’ve got a very significant reduction without firing anybody.”
It’s not exactly a specific policy agenda. He’s more specific, though, about replacing Obamacare with health savings accounts.
In his documentary A Breath of Fresh Air, Carson said he wants to “put the responsibility in the hands of the patient and the health care provider” to allow individuals who’ve saved more over time to contribute to the health care of their family members, which “makes every family their own insurance company.”
By coupling HSAs with high-deductible, low-premium catastrophic coverage and subsidies of $2,000 a year for low-income Americans—money he says is now being wasted on Medicaid—Carson believes that the costs of health coverage would “plummet.”
And for those who don’t save? Under his plan, “if people decide, ‘I just don’t want to do it’” and opt to “fall upon the mercy of society, they have the option to do that.”
Which makes it hard to picture exactly what a typical hospital emergency room would look like in Ben Carson’s America, but maybe we’ll find out as the presidential election cycle rolls along.
Will he run? I think so. Will he notch a primary win in an early state? Could happen.
But with his current formula—being the nonpolitician politician in the field who’s actually pretty good at the political art of giving answers that aren’t exactly answers—is there a strong chance he’ll simultaneously attract the 15-20 percent of the black vote he’d likely need in a general election while outdueling the Bushes and Romneys?
Right now I’d say that anything’s possible, but not exactly.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.