Is Ben Carson a Man of Destiny?
The new 114th Congress and its looming battles with President Obama over budget priorities, health care, immigration, and challenges abroad will soon be subsumed by the handicapping and daily volley of news regarding the 2016 presidential race, which has effectively begun. While early polls show familiar public figures atop them – names such as Bush, Clinton, and Romney – political newcomer Ben Carson begins the year poised to make a serious run at the Oval Office. A former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon risen to world renown from inner city Detroit poverty, Dr. Carson has never before run for elective office. But he's almost ideally positioned to capture the White House, a fact missed entirely by "experts."
Beltway insiders deride Dr. Carson as a total outsider with no chance: never before in U.S. history has someone like him achieved the presidency. Indeed only three men outside politics have been elected president, but in each case they were well-known as Army generals and war heroes: Zachary Taylor (1848), Ulysses S. Grant (1868), and Dwight Eisenhower (1952). Further, dating to 1788, examination of major party losers who were outsiders in presidential elections yields only Wendell Willkie, the GOP standard-bearer in 1940 (well-known U.S. Army generals lost as major-party nominees in 1852, 1864, and 1880, respectively; more recently, Ross Perot was a notable outsider in 1992, though not major party-backed).
But an examination of the current scene set against who Dr. Carson is and what he stands for vis-à-vis all other politician-candidates offers a real possibility that the long march to determine the 45th U.S. president could end in a world-historical upset and huge mandate.
Carson's rise to prominence followed his 2013 keynote address at the National Prayer Breakfast, where he candidly assessed the shortcomings of current policies with President Obama sitting six feet away. After a Wall Street Journal editorial noted the speech with favor, citing Dr. Carson's favoring a 10%-flat tax, market-based health care ideas, and his attack on the disingenuous political correctness now stifling Beltway discourse, his popularity surged. Thus began months of speaking engagements, media commentary and his sixth book, along with an outpouring of encouragement from voters. And, a grass-roots draft movement has raised $13 million, generating a gargantuan list of potential donors to any eventual campaign.
Remarkably, from a cold start in 2013 and far lower name recognition than conventional politicians, Dr. Carson is third in the latest national polls of potential GOP candidates (trailing Jeb Bush and Chris Christie). A December CNN/ORC poll including Mitt Romney placed him second behind Romney, and several Public Policy Polling state-level polls have shown Dr. Carson with outright leads in states as diverse as Colorado, Idaho, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania (where Messrs. Bush and Romney are tied for second), tied with Jeb Bush in New Hampshire, and a strong second or third in others – again, with name recognition well below all rivals.
The more voters learn about him, the more they like him. His most recent book, One Nation (Sentinel, 2014), a New York Times Bestseller, has far out-sold Hillary Clinton's Hard Choices, which appeared three weeks later (Carson's 2012 book is also outselling Mrs. Clinton's 2014 offering). A key reason for his burgeoning popularity is one that pundits have completely overlooked: far beyond his compelling life story and rise from poverty to globally-famous brain surgeon, Dr. Carson is seen as deeply authentic in a world full of phonies, and in tune with the American people on a host of major issues. While insiders consider Carson's outsider "novice" status a liability both for fund-raising and electability, voters increasingly see in him the one potential president who could both unite a fractured electorate and return the country to sustainable prosperity. His secret? In Reaganesque fashion, Dr. Carson sees life as up-versus-down, not left-versus-right as most do.
While details of his policies have yet to be fleshed out, both in his speaking and written commentary Dr. Carson, a keen student of American and world history, shows an acute understanding of a flourishing economy's drivers: reasonable levels of taxation in a non-distortive flat-rate system, sound money, unleashed entrepreneurial risk-taking, lessened burdens of job-killing regulation, and unrestricted trade. Altogether, these will induce an explosion of job- and wealth-creating investment in the U.S. economy.
Additionally Dr. Carson, recently returned from a foreign policy-developing trip to Israel, understands that only a vibrant U.S. economy can guarantee the continued unassailable strength of American military and naval power in a dangerous world.
Given his philosophy and authenticity, Dr. Carson would enter the Oval Office as only the third president since 1900, after Presidents Coolidge and Reagan, with an unambiguous commitment to a reduced federal footprint in American life. Critics will charge that potential spending cuts show a lack of concern for sacred pillars of social policy including health care and education. However, in both areas media-inflamed dissatisfaction could find resolution in his reform ideas, borne of an historic career as a neurosurgeon in one of the world's finest health care facilities and the Carsons' singular efforts to promote better educational outcomes for disadvantaged youths via their in-school Carson Scholars Fund programs, which have materially helped thousands.
To these disadvantaged students and indeed all Americans, Dr. Carson offers an inspiring vision of hope and opportunity garnered from the seminal lessons of his own life: that, regardless of one's station or origin, skin color or creed, the most important person in determining one's future is the individual himself. And, a free society with a growing economy provides boundless opportunities and enables success for all who desire it – this is in fact the central message the Founders wished to convey to future Americans and to the world. It's a maxim people never tire of both hearing and wanting to leverage, and one Carson viscerally apprehends like no other American politician since Mr. Reagan.
Will Dr. Carson run? An announcement is months away, but he is preparing as if he will. Can he win, as a total outsider? Following the deep policy errors of two successive presidencies led by consummate insider politicians and big-government proponents, voters crave both authenticity and return to a sustained prosperity that only ensues from a dynamic private sector. Knowing the political class has failed them, voters understand the country is beset with deep challenges, antidotes for which perhaps only a unifying outsider can provide, via a return to smaller-government policies that work – policies employed by Messrs. Coolidge and Reagan that need repassage.
For the GOP faithful, electability hinges on their nominee being able to break into the Democrats' lock on 242 Electoral Votessince 1992 (these 18 states and the District of Columbia: CA, CT, DC, DE, HI, IL, MA, ME, MI, MD, MN, NJ, NY, OR, PA, RI, WA, WI, VT). An authentic outsider following a pro-growth, pro-prosperity and pro-national security agenda could unite the country and deliver big congressional majorities needed to implement the requisite policy mix. In the months ahead, it might well become manifest that Dr. Carson is likely the only candidate who can do this, and may therefore be the man for the hour.
Mr. Chapman is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and principal at Hill & Cutler Co.