The first question we need to ask about Ben Carson is why an African-American would want to be a Republican, let alone a Republican candidate for president. The second question is why Carson not only is doing well, attracting substantial numbers of whites from a party unwelcoming to blacks, but also is gaining in the polls and nearly even with Donald Trump in a big one. The third question is whether he's nuts.
The third question is the easiest to answer: Maybe Carson is nuts, maybe he isn't nuts. The standards constituting what is nuts have become laughably flexible, and the Republican Party, in becoming a safe haven for extremism of many stripes, has cornered the market on politician nuts, including a number of presidential wannabe nuts in recent years, among them Michele Bachmann, Tom Tancredo, David Duke, Sarah Palin and Alan Keyes. (Whether Rudy Giuliani is a nut or merely a sleazeball is open to question.)
The first question is tougher to answer since only 5 percent of blacks identify themselves as Republican, another 5 percent lean Republican, and 90 percent of blacks voted for Barack Obama in 2012. Which begins to explain why there are only three black Republicans in Congress and 40 black Democrats and makes Carson such a . . . uh, freak.
What tends to get lost in the puzzlement over Carson is that he comes from a long conservative tradition rooted in the black church and consequentially a belief in religious morality and free-market enterprise that makes the Democratic Party anathema to him. Same for former pizza magnate Herman Cain in the 2012 GOP primary, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Congresswoman Mia Love, and to a lesser extent former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who in 2008 seemed to be one more Republican insult away from endorsing Barack Obama.
The answer to the second question is that many conservative white Republicans, and there are hardly any other kind, view Carson as being "safe" despite the GOP reliably being opposed to any kind of federal program that seeks to level the playing field for minorities and in support of laws that make it tougher for minorities to vote, and his high poll standings have earned him a spot just off center stage to the right (!) of Trump at the second presidential debate tonight. (Jeb Bush will be to the left.) Carson actually is in a statistical tie with Trump in the authoritative New York Times-CBS News Poll, his vertiginous rise largely at the expense of Jeb! and Scott Walker.
Focus groups say Carson seems like a "nice" guy, which doesn't necessarily translate into meaning that he knows his place as some conservative whites believe that blacks should, but his quiet dignity makes him an appealing alternative to Republicans turned off by Trump's braggadocio, and what is conservatism if not the last bastion of self-restraint in a world that sometimes seems about to spin off its axis? (Carson likes to relate how he prayed to God to give him the right woman and how he has been married to his wife, Candy, for 40 years, while Trump brags about all the beautiful women he has bedded.)
Some of that feeling of safety also has to do with Carson's view that racism can only be changed through individual acts. This tends to validate the beliefs of a goodly number of conservative white Republicans on race and their belief that blacks like Obama are uppity and far too outspoken about racism and racial issues in general.
Like most of the candidates in the Republican field, Carson labors under the illusion that America is a Judeo-Christian nation and not a secular republic. His view of the state of the nation, like the execrable Ted Cruz, is unrelentingly negative and borders on the apocalyptic. Carson also is far better known for what he is against than what he may be for, and he certainly is comfortably in step with voters who are oligarch coddling, gay hating, immigrant loathing, gun hugging, Bible thumping, evolution repudiating and climate change denying.
Where Carson tends to get nutty is when he opens his mouth.
As someone who rose from hardscrabble roots to become a pediatric neurosurgeon, and by all accounts a damned good one, and has been an inspiration to generations of young up and comers, Carson is entitled to his views. When it comes to health care, that view is free market even if the system he endorses and got rich off of resulted in tens of millions of Americans without health care, an unconscionable infant mortality rate and per capita patient costs far in excess of those in other industrialized countries. That the Affordable Care Act has begun to redress those problems simply doesn't wash with Carson, who has variously called it worse than the 9/11 attacks, the worst thing to happen to the U.S. since slavery, and akin to something that would have been endorsed in Nazi Germany.
"The government is supposed to conform to our will," he has said. "By taking the most important thing you have, your health and your health care, and turning that over to the government, you fundamentally shift the power, a huge chunk of it, from the people to the government. This is not the direction that we want the government to go in this nation."
Carson, citing "a lot of people who go into prison straight and come out gay," believes that homosexuality is a choice.
He contrasts the U.S. government and ISIS by explaining that the government is "busily giving away every value and every belief for the sake of political correctness" while the terror group is "willing to die for what they believe."
Carson burst onto the scene by having the chutzpah -- although bad manners is more like it -- to confront Barack Obama, who was sitting a few feet from him, at the nonpolitical National Prayer Breakfast in February 2013, and more recently has helpfully called the president a psychopath.
When a colleague said Obama "looks clean. Shirt's white. The tie. He looks elegant,” Carson responded: "Like most psychopaths. That's why they're successful. That's the way they look. They all look great. But he knows he's telling a lie! He's trying to sell what he thinks is not true! He's sitting there saying, 'These Americans are so stupid I can tell them anything.' "
Oh, and he says Obama could declare martial law and cancel the 2016 election, and he has intimated that if things get much worse, he might emigrate to Australia, which is rich since it has cradle-to-grave national health care.
You get the feeling that somewhere along the way Carson may have lost his sense of who he is and perhaps sees himself as some sort of religious figure. This again is not to say that he has forgotten what his place is, or should be, to use the racist vernacular. But perhaps Carson has gotten a free ride, or at least an easier one, as a presidential candidate despite saying things every bit as loathsome and occasionally bizarre as Donald Trump because he is . . . uh, an African-American.
And while The Donald is easy to criticize and some of his opponents for the nomination are making a cottage industry of doing just that, Carson can glower from behind that invisible shield so many of us white folks instinctively erect to seal off strong feelings when we don't necessarily like the message and the messenger is black.
ES UNA COSA HERMOSA (IT'S A BEAUTIFUL THING)
It is still waaay too early to fully calculate the damage Donald Trump has done to the Republican brand, but it is not too early to suggest that he could wreak havoc in down-ballot campaigns and put the GOP's Senate majority in jeopardy.
Some of the most competitive Senate races are in states with substantial Hispanic populations, including Florida, Colorado and Nevada, and Republican contenders there have their hands full placating voters offended by Trump's oft-repeated view that Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers and his calls for an end to birthright citizenship.
Democrats would control the Senate with the gain of four seats, or three seats presuming that the next president is a Democrats and the vice president would be a tie breaker.
If I had a dollar for every time I read that John Boehner's House speakership was in peril, you'd be reading a postcard from Tahiti and not this column.
Meanwhile, the defunding of Planned Parenthood is shaping up as Boehner's next near-death experience. Conservatives want to defund, but that would require defunding the federal budget, which is to say force another government shutdown, which is guaranteed to be another disaster for Boehner and Republicans, and Boehner privately wants no part of.
Implied but not stated in this bit of political blackmail is that if hardliners don't get their way, they'll force a vote to replace Boehner.
The upshot is likely to be something "symbolic" like Boehner offering a separate bill to deny Planned Parenthood money, which would please conservatives -- for about five seconds -- but have no overall effect except averting a shutdown, but there is a larger moral to this story: Most of the relievedly shrinking field of Republican presidential wannabes are campaigning on Government Is Broken platforms, but it is the party itself through its hatred of Barack Obama and congressional chicanery that has caused most of the breakage and created most of the disillusionment.
BERNIE KEEPS IT CLASSY
NBC News anchor Andrea Mitchell gave it her best shot, but Bernie Sanders wouldn't take the bait:
"I have known Hillary Clinton for 25 years. And I know her to be a very hardworking, intelligent person, somebody I worked with in the Senate. So I am sorry, I am not going to get into the media game, Andrea, of attacking, making personal attacks, against Hillary Clinton.
"I just am not going to do that. I don't think that's what the American people want. I think we have got to focus on the real issues. Why is the middle class disappearing and almost all new income and wealth going to the top 1 percent? Why don't we have a trade policy that works for the American worker and not the CEOs of large corporations? Why do we have a system where families cannot afford to send their kids to college?
"A lot of issues to talk about. You'll forgive me but I'm not going to get into attacking Hillary Clinton personally."
And was incredibly gracious -- especially by the gutter standards of politics today -- in an address this week at Liberty University, a hotbed of conservative activism, in making a religious and moral case for fighting poverty and inequality. Or "preaching to the opposite choir," as one pundit nicely put it.
Politix Update is an irregular compendium written by veteran journalist Shaun Mullen, for whom the 2016 presidential campaign is his (gasp!) 12th since 1968. Click here for an index of previous Politix Updates.
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