Politics & Policy

Ben Carson’s Wonk Deficit

(Richard Ellis/Getty)

How quickly can Dr. Ben Carson get up to speed on the details of the complex policy issues that command a president’s attention?

That’s the make-or-break question surrounding Carson, a brilliant neurosurgeon who had never run for office before announcing a presidential bid last week, and who remains a rookie in most policy realms other than health care.

For those who wonder whether Carson has done his policy homework, the bad news is that Carson’s campaign team has few staffers specifically focused on hammering out a detailed policy agenda for the campaign. Carson hasn’t yet assembled a “kitchen cabinet” of loyal advisors with policy expertise who could serve as a talent pool for a future Carson administration, the way some other candidates have.

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“While we have had numerous conversations with leading domestic and foreign experts, we have not settled on a formal team, at this time,” says Doug Watts, communications director for Carson America, in a statement to National Review. He adds that an “initial congregation” is in the works.

Yes, one of the two GOP presidential candidates with no political experience doesn’t yet have a policy team, just as he begins to be quizzed on policy details on the stump. Meanwhile, since January, the official and unofficial campaigns of more experienced GOP political figures have been snapping up conservative policy experts like they’re in a wonk free-agent-signing period.

One of the two GOP presidential candidates with no political experience doesn’t yet have a policy team, just as he begins to be quizzed on policy details on the stump.

By January, Senator Marco Rubio had collected an unofficial circle of advisers that includes National Affairs editor Yuval Levin, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, Bob Kagan of the Brookings Institution, and former senator Jim Talent. In February, Scott Walker hired a pair of Capitol Hill veterans to lead his foreign- and domestic-policy teams. Bobby Jindal founded his America Next policy group in April 2014, and under director Chris Jacobs issued detailed plans on energy, health care, defense policy and education reform; the group added the legal expert Jim Bopp in February. The same month, Jeb Bush hired reform-conservative wonk April Ponnuru (wife of National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru) and the following month Bush named Wall Street veteran Justin Muzinich his policy director. In April, Rick Perry hired Dallas economist Abby McCloskey and conservative health-care-policy analyst Avik Roy.

RELATED: Ben Carson: It’s Not Politics or Economics, It’s the Culture

While Carson hasn’t yet assembled a policy team, his campaign has chosen to consult with a number of noted free-market-conservative scholars. Evidently believing that intermittent meetings with conservative policy luminaries are an effective substitute for the daily briefings that a policy team would normally provide, Carson and members of his campaign have held meetings with economists such as Art Laffer and Stephen Moore, and with experts at the Heritage Foundation.

Laffer, sometimes called “The Father of Supply-Side Economics,” was an adviser to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. He met with Carson three times; the first meeting took place at Laffer’s office, where the two men talked alone for several hours.

“I did most of the talking,” Laffer recalls. Carson impressed him. “I think he’s spectacular in virtually every aspect of humanity you can think of,” Laffer says. “He doesn’t have the philosophies of a typical politician, protecting himself by not saying anything, and sticking to politically correct comments.”

RELATED: The Learning Curve of a Candidate

Carson also met with policy experts at the Heritage Foundation in January. Despite the fact that the they are bragging about briefing Carson, the think tank declined to specify which fellows and staffers spoke with the candidate, or to go into detail on the topics discussed.

Moore, the founder of the Club for Growth and prominent advocate of free-market economics, is currently with the Heritage Foundation but wasn’t among those at the January meeting. Moore met with members of Carson’s staff, but not Carson himself, at the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, D.C. in February, discussing tax reform and economic policy. Moore says he came away impressed with the staffers, but got the feeling the campaign was, at that point, still putting together a detailed economic agenda.

Neither Laffer nor Moore are, at this point, formally affiliated with the Carson campaign, and so far neither of them have endorsed a candidate for president.

#related#Occasional sit-downs with conservative scholars, prominent and well-respected though they may be, are no substitute for the daily briefings a proper team could provide, as Carson seemed to show in the run-up to his announcement. Carson’s off-the-cuff comments in recent months have generated one controversial headache after another, oftentimes suggesting he isn’t intimately familiar with some important topics.

He was forced to apologize for a CNN interview where he contended that homosexuality was a choice. He told a crowd in Iowa that he didn’t like “government subsidies for anything,” and then a moment later proposed, “taking that $4 billion a year we spend on oil subsidies and using that in new fueling stations” for 30 percent ethanol blends. (The $4 billion figure Carson cited includes several expenditures that most wouldn’t consider subsidies, such as U.S. spending on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.) And he contended that presidents don’t necessarily need to enforce Supreme Court decisions, appearing to reject the well-established doctrine of judicial review under the Constitution.

When Carson announced his campaign at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, he played to his biggest strength: a personal biography most other presidential candidates would envy. He told stories of growing up in one of Detroit’s roughest neighborhoods, and recalled the sadness he felt when a candy-distributing drug dealer from the neighborhood was murdered.

A successful Carson campaign will require a lot more discussion of what he wants to do as president.

Carson did lay out a few policy ideas in his announcement speech. He discussed lowering or perhaps even temporarily eliminating taxes on money U.S. companies make overseas: “There is $2 trillion of offshore money. They will not bring it back because it will be taxed at 35 percent. What if we give them a tax holiday and let them bring it back, repatriate that money? It won’t cost us a dime.”

(In January, Senators Rand Paul and Barbara Boxer introduced legislation to allow companies to repatriate money parked overseas at a 6.5 percent tax rate for a limited time.)

Carson also suggested selling off federal lands and buildings to reduce the deficit. “We owe a lot. We own a lot, also. Just in terms of land and the mineral rights for it, we are probably at least $50 trillion. We own dams. We own levees. We own railroads. The government owns 900,000 buildings, 77,000 of which are not being utilized or underutilized,” he said.

Carson is as good as any candidate when he’s discussing values and principles. But as recent years have demonstrated, personal charisma and a compelling life story aren’t enough to create a successful presidency. During his announcement speech, Carson said, “I will be giving an in-depth economic speech in weeks and months to come with a lot of details that have to be done.”

A successful Carson campaign will require a lot more discussion of what he wants to do as president and a lot less about his controversial comment of the day. Rolling out policy ideas in big speeches is one way to break through the noise and dispel the notion that he’s a better-than-usual vanity candidate, or the nation’s first political provocateur who can do brain surgery.

The question remains: When Carson gives those speeches, will anyone with policy expertise be standing behind him?

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for National Review.

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