As Ben Carson weighs a run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, his political calculus is not the stuff of polls or advice from high-powered politicians.
His motivation comes from the gut – and from above.
“I pray every day for wisdom,” he told McClatchy in an interview. “I think that’s how God speaks, by giving me wisdom, the ability to be perceptive and to analyze things and correct them.”
A retired neurosurgeon who burst onto the political stage two years ago at a National Prayer Breakfast, Carson says he’ll announce before May 1 whether he’ll seek the presidency. While many candidates acknowledge prayer, Carson speaks openly and often about his faith, a sign of a campaign likely driven as much or more by beliefs and values, many derived from the Bible, as by specific issues.
Carson, 63, frequently cites his faith as a prime motivator. “If the Lord grabbed me by the collar and made me do it, I would,” he told Fox News commentator Sean Hannity in 2013. Last November, the Lord was getting louder. “I feel fingers,” he told the Christian Broadcasting Network, referring to the fingers of God.
This week, the feeling was growing. “I certainly see a lot of doors opening,” he told McClatchy.
Carson vaulted into the political spotlight two years during a Washington prayer breakfast. With President Barack Obama sitting just over his shoulder, Carson charged that “the PC police are out at all times.”
He offered alternatives to Obama’s health care law, and criticized the tax system. “I see the fairest individual in the universe, God, and he’s given us a system. It’s called tithe,” he said. He favors a flat tax similar to a tithe.
Conservatives saw a star in the making, someone with the guts, résumé and articulate message who was willing to criticize Obama to his face. The speech became a YouTube sensation. The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial suggesting “Ben Carson for President.”
“I was planning for a traditional retirement, and then the prayer breakfast happened,” Carson recalled this week. “I said, well, this will die down and everything will go back to normal.” It didn’t.
He became a popular speaker and commentator in conservative circles. Supporters formed a committee to draft him for president. His appearance at the October 2013 Values Voter Summit heightened that reputation.
“You know Obamacare is, really, I think the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery,” said Carson, who’s African-American. “It is slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about health care. It was about control.”
He became a columnist for the conservative Washington Times, and a commentator for Fox News for about a year. He came in fifth, with 8 percent, in the December 2014 McClatchy-Marist poll, ahead of seasoned politicians such as Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, then-Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and 2012 vice-presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
A draft committee is rolling. It organizes weekly prayer calls. “Our hope is that our prayers will move the hand of God,” the group says on its website.
It’s raised more than $12 million. It has chairmen in all 99 Iowa counties and it opened an office last month in Manchester, N.H. – both early-voting states.
Carson has already tapped Houston businessman Terry Giles to chair his campaign should it happen.
More message than mechanics?
It could take all that and more. Candidates with more message than mechanics often start strong in states such as Iowa, with large Christian conservative blocs, then run into trouble.
Televangelist Pat Robertson shook up the political world when he finished second in the 1988 Iowa Republican caucus, well ahead of Vice President George H.W. Bush. But Bush rebounded quickly elsewhere, and won the nomination and the White House.
Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor, won Iowa in 2008 but finished a distant third eight days later in the New Hampshire primary, and he couldn’t capitalize on his early support.
The same scenario threatens a Carson candidacy. “He doesn’t seem to be resonating here. I don’t think he’s known,” said Wayne Lesperance, director of the New England College Polling Institute in Henniker, N.H.
Evangelical leaders know it will take more than a standard effort. “If he runs a typical campaign, he gets beat,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, an influential Christian right group in Iowa. “If he becomes a movement, then who knows what can happen?”
One question Carson is likely to face is his lack of experience, particularly in a party that lambasted Barack Obama for seeking the White House with no record of running anything bigger than his U.S. Senate office, and that for only a few years.
“I’ve had experience in putting together a team of people, to accomplish some things that are very complex, in some cases things that have never been done before in all humankind,” Carson said.
He grew up in poverty in Detroit, pushed by his mother to read and learn. He took the opportunities given him, went to medical school and became a world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon.
As he developed his medical practice, he moved away from his liberal Democratic beliefs and found Ronald Reagan’s message resonating. He told McClatchy he liked “the whole concept of personal responsibility, taking advantage of opportunities.”
Carson in 1987 became the first surgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins joined at the head. His autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” was made into a 2009 Emmy-nominated TV movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr.
“A whole generation of black people wanted their sons to be Dr. Carson,” said Vernon Robinson, the Carson draft committee’s campaign director. “And they wanted their daughters to marry him.”
When Carson spoke before the Republican National Committee last week, his biggest test before party insiders so far, he had the audience enthralled as he told his life story. Then he pivoted to politics – and turned provocative.
He suggested the Islamic State could serve as a role model for America in one way. “They’ve got the wrong philosophy, but they’re willing to die for what they believe in, while we are busily giving away every belief and every value for the sake of political correctness,” he said “We have to change that.”
Later, he elaborated to McClatchy, “We have a choice to make: Do we sit around and wait for them to do that, or do we take them out?”
The U.S. is already deploying airstrikes. Carson scoffed at that notion. “If you need ground troops to take ’em out, you put in ground troops,” he said.
Such views endear Carson to evangelicals, but they leave him an easy target for critics. Carson shrugs.
He’s confident about his beliefs, and in the McClatchy interview he elaborated on his controversial analogy of Obama-era America to Nazi Germany.
“Most of those people in Nazi Germany did not believe in what Hitler was doing,” he explained. “But did they do anything about it? Did they say anything? Absolutely not, and look what happened.”
The Nazis had a philosophy that not only insisted on Aryan supremacy and ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, but also a domestic security force that brutally suppressed dissent. That could happen here, Carson said, because “we’re not immune from that kind of thing. You have to stand up for what you believe in.”
Health care, taxes
For Carson, one path to a less intrusive government is more personal control over health care choices. His plan would give everyone the option of setting up $2,000-a-year accounts to pay for health care, starting at birth. Funding could come from employers or individuals. The indigent could get government help. No one would be required to set up a fund.
Savings account funds could be transferred to family members, and when they died, the money would remain with the family. People could also purchase catastrophic insurance. Medicare would survive as an option.
To help fund the government, Carson would revamp the tax code to a flat tax with a possible rate of 10 or 15 percent, and no loopholes.
Using a flat tax to fund the government would be tough, though, said Roberton Williams, senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, an independent research group.
“It’s not easy to implement it in a way that doesn’t disrupt what we now have in our tax system and maintain fairness,” he said. Lower-income individuals, for instance, often pay less than 10 percent, and the system has significant incentives for homebuying, child care and other purposes.
Despite the raves from evangelicals, a Carson presidential bid remains a long shot. And he’ll face competition for the evangelical vote.
Huckabee has an eight-year-old network of evangelical support, though skeptics hate his record of tax increases while governor. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania narrowly won Iowa’s caucus in 2012, but he’s no longer a fresh face. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks about his Christian faith, and this week he urged fellow governors to attend a massive prayer event in Louisiana. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sens. Cruz and Paul have ties to the evangelical community, though they don’t emphasize the religious tie as fervently as Carson does.
Today, at least, these remain giddy times for Carson. The first vote is a year away, and he figures he’s overcome bigger challenges.
“All my life I was told you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” he said, and he gets the feeling this is his calling. Remember, Carson said, “Your beliefs govern who you are.”