Ben Carson: Don't underestimate me

Ben Carson: Don't underestimate me
© Greg Nash

Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonHousing and health care go hand-in-hand Carson's calendar includes trips to Florida on Fridays: report The Hill's Morning Report - 2020 Dems grapple with race, gender and privilege MORE wants to be the conservative insurgent in the 2016 GOP presidential primary.

A retired African-American pediatric neurosurgeon, Carson skyrocketed to fame after lambasting President Obama and the healthcare law at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast.

ADVERTISEMENT

The political neophyte now has a likely campaign manager and finance director, a leadership PAC that has hauled in millions and a draft movement with a presence in all of Iowa’s 99 counties.

He’s the author of six books, the latest of which outsold likely Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s most recent autobiography.

Carson would be an underdog in 2016, but the possibility that he could catch fire in Iowa’s caucuses has to be taken seriously.

He came in fifth in a weekend poll by Bloomberg and the Des Moines Register Iowa poll. Nine percent of those polled picked him as their first choice — more than picked former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Critics who think he could be exposed as lacking policy expertise shouldn’t underestimate him, he says.

“I’ve been beefing up,” he told The Hill in a recent interview. “I’ve always been interested in those things, so I already have a good base of knowledge about policy, but I’m studying up on the issues and talking to people and getting their takes as well. You can never know too much.”

He also argues his underdog status is appealing — and that his background and stature give him a unique ability among Republican to connect with the poor as well as minorities, who have largely shunned the last two GOP presidential candidates.

“It’s time for the Republican Party to begin broadening its outreach to the communities they don’t typically address, not because [Republicans] don’t care, but I think because they’ve kind of conceded, and I don’t think you should concede anything,” he said.

Carson said Republicans need to emphasize that their party backs policies that will lift people out of poverty.

“Republicans need to make a conscious effort to show people it’s much better to be independent rather than dependent and provide that pathway for independence,” Carson said.

He argues the party needs to move on from 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s remarks that 47 percent of voters are dependent on the government and see themselves as victims.

“Take the 47 percent and run with it,” he said. “It’s our job to make sure those people have a chance to move up the ladder.”

From poverty to pediatric surgery

Carson says his story is about personal transformation.

He grew up in poverty in Detroit, the son of a struggling single mother.

As a young man, he had a violent temper. He badly injured a schoolmate by punching him while clenching a metal lock.

On another occasion, he writes of lunging at a friend with a small knife that, luckily for the both of them, broke off on his friend’s belt buckle before it could make the plunge into the boy’s abdomen.

It’s a far cry from the soft-spoken Carson most know today.

The neurosurgeon credits his Christian faith with the turnaround — and it’s easy to see how Iowa’s social conservatives could turn to him.

“Don’t ostracize people of faith and say they can’t be smart,” Carson told The Hill. “What are we, a bunch of hypocrites? Our money says ‘In God We Trust;’ the Declaration of Independence says we’re endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights. Are we going to be unwilling to live out our principled lives because we’re intimidated and afraid that someone will call us a name?”

Carson has undergone a drastic political transformation as well. In 1972, he cast his first vote for president in favor of Democrat George McGovern.

“I was a rabid Democrat when I went off to Yale,” Carson laughed.

“Like most people growing up in my environment, you hear stuff, and you’re told that Republicans are mean, nasty racists that hate you,” he said. “You hear that all your life, and you start to believe it, that Democrats are the ones looking out for your well-being and will take care of you … but then I started listening to Ronald Reagan, and it made so much sense. I thought, this guy doesn’t sound hateful or racist.”

Political fame

Carson’s life turned around when he lectured President Obama, Vice President Biden and first lady Michelle Obama on fiscal responsibility, moral decay and ObamaCare at the prayer breakfast two years ago. 

The speech rapidly launched him into the conservative political stratosphere.

“I was surprised by the reaction,” Carson said. “I had no idea it would have such an impact and resonate so strongly.”

Now, Carson says one of the reasons he’s mulling a presidential bid is because he feels obligated to use the platform he’s been given.

“So many people have tuned out,” he said. “There are 93 million people who didn’t vote in 2012, and 30 million evangelicals who didn’t vote because they don’t see a difference between Republicans and Democrats.”

Money

Money will be an issue for Carson.

While his PAC has a proven capability to fundraise, it’s spent that cash at a concerning clip. Meanwhile, establishment candidates are talking about raising $100 million or more for the primaries. The general election is likely going to cost the GOP pick close to $1 billion.

That’s set off a scramble to lock down funds from wealthy donors early on. Carson said that’s not an aspect of the campaign that he’s heavily involved with.

“I’m focused on reaching people with my message, but I recognize it requires money,” he said. “I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about that. People have demonstrated that they’re willing to provide resources. If they follow up on those promises, we’ll be fine. If not, then they’re telling me to get lost, and I will.”

Some think Carson has already hit his ceiling and that his comments will turn off as many voters as they attract.

The former neurosurgeon delights in taunting the media with his style of edgy, off-the-cuff rhetoric.

He’s said ObamaCare is the worst thing since slavery and argued that, while Americans are busy giving their rights away, fighters with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are at least “willing to die for what they believe.” He wondered aloud why a gay couple would want to buy a wedding cake from an anti-gay bakery, saying the bakers might decide to poison the cake.

“I absolutely refuse to have my speech tailored by the media or anyone else,” he told The Hill.

Public opinion has turned against him on gay marriage, but he remains a hard-line opponent and talks about it publicly more than most political consultants would advise him to.

“There are a lot of people who say what they think people want to hear, say what it is political consultants tell them that they’re supposed to say,” Carson said. “I just don’t see any point in that. Even if you manage to fool the people and they elect you, that’s not who you are.”