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Albert R. Hunt: Carson may find politics is job for politicians

  • Bloomberg News
  • Published Tuesday, June 10, 2014, at 12 a.m.

Ben Carson is following in the footsteps of Walter Cronkite and Lee Iacocca as a nonpolitician being publicly mentioned as a candidate for the most political of jobs, the U.S. presidency.

Carson, a retired physician at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, has become a favorite of the political right as he weighs a run for the Republican presidential nomination. He finished third in a straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference this year, ahead of Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Paul Ryan and Gov. Chris Christie.

He recently had breakfast with Washington journalists, mainly conservatives, and spoke at the National Press Club.

He is dazzling conservative audiences across the country. They love his story – a poor black kid from Detroit’s inner city who rose to be a pre-eminent pediatric neurosurgeon – and his strongly held traditional conservative values.

The 62-year-old, who has written best-selling books about his story, medical career and, most recently, his vision for America, says his candidacy depends on what he hears from the public and God.

Like the boomlets for Cronkite, the celebrated television anchorman, and Iacocca, the high-powered automobile executive, neither of whom ran – or for nonpoliticians who did run such as publisher Steve Forbes, pizza executive Herman Cain or Gen. Wesley Clark – the Carson candidacy will falter. The reason: Winning the presidency requires considerable political skills. Running isn’t for novices.

(A personal aside: Carson is a hero in our home. Sixteen years ago, he operated on our critically injured son and gave him a new lease on life. His extraordinary talents were matched by his kindness. We know leading physicians at Hopkins who are mortified by some of his political pronouncements, yet admire him professionally and personally.)

He’s already discovering that, even without a spotlight, politics isn’t brain surgery, and that you can get in trouble with careless comments. For example, he linked same-sex marriage to bestiality and then apologized.

In his calm, appealing manner, he unleashed a harsh critique of the Affordable Care Act at the National Prayer Breakfast last year, in front of President Obama. He has gone on to call Obamacare “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery,” which, he said, it resembles. He later explained he was talking about any attempt to take away an individual’s control of his or her life. He hasn’t included Medicare in that critique yet.

With no experience in the grassroots vineyards, he will unwittingly rattle, or alienate, some on the right with assertions that don’t hew to conservative orthodoxy. Some examples: the 2008 financial crash was caused by the financial deregulation of the 1990s; health-insurance companies should be regulated like utilities; and all federal spending, including defense (and medical research), should be cut by 10 percent, no exceptions.

His foreign policy views, a work in progress, sometimes seem closer to those of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., than former Vice President Dick Cheney’s. Carson thinks both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were a mistake; economic pressure and a crash energy-independence project would have worked better. On Syria, he sounds like Obama.

Carson calls for straight talk and an end to all political correctness. That sounds appealing, but it doesn’t work in the real world of presidential politics.

With a huge, diverse electorate, there’s a premium on stitching together coalitions and finding common ground to get more than 50 percent of the vote. That’s why, over the past century, the U.S. only once elected someone with no electoral experience: Dwight D. Eisenhower, who as the supreme allied commander in World War II demonstrated exceptional political skills.

Corporations don’t seek out nonbusiness types to be chief executives, football teams don’t pick coaches who haven’t been associated with the sport, and symphonies don’t select the tone-deaf as conductors. Whatever the superficial appeal of the nonpolitician mantra, presidential politics is for politicians.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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