Laslo Boyd: Is Ben Carson for real?

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Once upon a time, there was a famous pediatric neurosurgeon who lived in Maryland.  He performed pioneering surgeries, was widely seen as an inspirational leader in his field, and had a fascinating life story.  It was hard to imagine anyone having a more glowing reputation than he had.  Ben Carson was certainly one of the best known and most admired residents of the State of Maryland.

Today, there’s a guy running for the Republican Presidential nomination with the same name who looks an awful lot like that neurosurgeon.  Any resemblance to the brilliant doctor ends there.

Candidate Carson is hostile to science, displays the kind of bigotry that appeals to the fringe voters of the Republican Party who turn out for primaries, has used some of the most inflammatory historical references of anyone running, and portrays himself as on a mission from God.

And, yet, as of last week’s mud wrestling event dressed up as a Candidate debate, Carson was near the top in the Republican field, at that point trailing only Donald Trump.  As best as the national pundit class can figure, their success suggests that Party activists want an outsider, a non-politician, rather than anyone with any governing experience.

Carson’s current standing says more about Republican voters than it does about his qualifications to be president.  What’s particularly puzzling about his candidacy is the extent to which he seems to have abandoned the qualities that enabled him to be a world-class surgeon.  He can’t be troubled with facts or research. 

For example, he recently asserted that there is no solid body of evidence to support climate change fears.  Governor Jerry Brown of California immediately sent him the several hundred page report of a United Nations Commission, but it’s almost certain that Carson will neither read it nor change his anti-science stance.  That approach dovetails nicely with the know-nothing Republican voters who support his candidacy.

Following his sleepy performance in last week’s debate that saw him fall behind Carly Fiorna in the latest poll, Carson announced on a Sunday morning talk show that a Muslim should not be elected president.  Besides showing his ignorance or disregard for the Constitutional provision banning religious tests for office, it was a transparent effort to increase his market share among the much sought after “bigot” vote.

Carson has also adopted the Republican talking point that Obamacare is a scourge on the American people.  To distinguish his loathing from that of his competitors, he has gone beyond extreme to argue that it was the worst thing to happen in this country since slavery.  One can disagree with aspects of the Affordable Care Act, but intellectual honesty should force one to acknowledge that it has accomplished a lot of good and has not succumbed to the early dire warnings of its critics.

I expect Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz to engage in over-the-top hyperbole about Obamacare, but I did hope that a health care professional would have more regard for truth.  And if that weren’t bad enough, Carson, during last week’s debate, failed to defend the efficacy of vaccines against one of Donald Trump’s uninformed diatribes.  Apparently, he decided to leave his medical integrity behind when he became a candidate.

When the questions shifted to foreign affairs, Carson almost disappeared from the stage.  While the other candidates displayed an eagerness to go to war with Iran on “day one” of their administration, Carson really didn’t have anything of either substance or inflamed rhetoric to add to the discussion.  If voters end up deciding that the key qualification they are looking for in a candidate is the ability to deal with a threatening and hostile world, it’s hard to see how Carson gets any attention.

At first, and even second, glance, it’s also hard to understand why Carson is running for president.  He has no relevant experience. He is running to be the candidate of a party that has not been particularly receptive to minorities.  He runs the risk of his candidacy being a bit of window dressing for Republicans.  He has displayed an appalling lack of knowledge about many of the subjects that he would face as president, and hasn’t done the work needed to learn about them.

Without any inside information about what motivates Carson, I will still venture a couple of observations.  He refers constantly to the importance of taking personal responsibility and cites with justification his own life story of having overcome very long odds.  Does he believe that everyone can and should be able to replicate his journey from the slums of Detroit to the operating rooms of Johns Hopkins Hospital?  Maybe, or maybe he just wants to remind us of his own remarkable climb.

Another favorite target for Carson is “political correctness.”  He is constantly slamming examples that he sees and argues that it is a significant cause of our failure to address major issues facing the country.  That seems more like a pet peeve than a thoughtful analysis of what ails the nation.  One can argue interminably about whether a particular use of language is political correctness or sensitivity to different cultures and values.  While the debate may or may not be useful, it’s rarely what determines whether we find solutions to important problems.

A bit like Donald Trump, Ben Carson must be marveling that he is being taken as seriously as he is at this point.  But remember, this point is still months before the first vote is cast and even longer before anything gets decided. 

What will Carson’s candidacy accomplish?  He’s not going to win the Republican nomination.  He will continue to have the opportunity to opine on issues that he cares about regardless of whether they are really important to the future of the country.   But mostly, Carson’s run for the nomination is tarnishing what was once a truly shinning reputation.  He has managed the incredible feat of transforming himself from an admired saver of lives to a bit player in a traveling carnival.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.