Politics & Policy

Ben Carson, Aloud

Carson at the Heritage Action forum in Greenville, S.C. (Sean Rayford/Getty)
The neurosurgeon-turned-candidate discusses foreign policy, health care, and himself.

Dr. Ben Carson may be soft-spoken, but that doesn’t mean he’s reticent about discussing policy.

Provided a supposedly strict 15-minute window for a private phone interview with the famous neurosurgeon and presidential candidate, I thanked him for his time once 16 minutes were up — only to have him say (the quote is approximate): “But you haven’t asked me anything about foreign policy! Can we talk about that for a few minutes?”

And then the good doctor was off and running. While Carson is known for a Colin Powell–like reticence to use conventional forces in major operations, his “peace through strength” message sounded entirely Reaganesque:

The biggest problem is that we don’t have a foreign policy. We wait until other people do things and then we react to it. That is exactly the wrong thing to do when we are the pinnacle nation in the world. We should be leading . . . [and to do that, we must rebuild] a military that should be by far the most powerful in the world. Our Navy right now is at 1917 levels; we’ve cut our Air Force to 1940 levels. The [budget] sequester is cutting the heart out of our personnel levels, and we’re also not doing the kind of warfare research we need to do to stay ahead of the rest of the world.

Carson added an aside about how we also should reinvigorate NASA, as much (or more) because of the technological advances that NASA produces as because of a desire to put men on Mars. And then:

The first thing is to reestablish a very, very strong military and that will in turn give greater confidence to our allies, who will become much harder to be intimidated by the Putins of the world. . . . We have the appearance of weakness and therefore we are losing respect and therefore we are encouraging others to take leadership. . . . There is a very close correlation between peace and strength.

Okay, okay, it might still sound like conservative boilerplate. Yet, not just on defense but on any issue he is asked about, Carson, who may not exactly be a Paul Ryan–like policy wonk, still sounds closer to Ryan’s wonkishness than to, say, the empty know-nothingism of Donald Trump.

Voters sense this. If they wanted a genius with wonkish proclivities, Bobby Jindal would be soaring in the polls (and some of us would be perfectly happy if he were!) rather than Carson. Carson’s “not too wonkish, not too blustery” practicality, like that of the moderately hot porridge tasted by Goldilocks, right now seems “just right” to a lot of Republicans.

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On health care, for example, Carson might not have laid out anything as comprehensive as have Jindal, Scott Walker, or Marco Rubio. But once a questioner gets him wound up on his proposal to vastly expand health savings accounts as a cradle-to-grave option, the doctor is hard to stop:

We pay almost twice as much for health care per capita as other nations. We can use those same dollars. If people control their own health savings accounts, rather than hundreds of bureaucrats . . . it makes every family the monitor of those dollars, with no middle man in between, which stretches your dollar. This will cover everything for medical care except for a major, catastrophic issue. We would still have insurance for catastrophic care, but it will cost much, much less. That will take care of 75 percent of our population without increasing costs. But for the 25 percent of the population which is indigent, how do we take care of them now? With Medicaid. Well, we spend $400 billion a year on Medicaid, and even if we’re talking 80 million people, 80 million goes into 400 billion 5,000 times, or in other words $5,000 each. Well, even for wealthy people using “concierge” medicine, those practices generally cost two to three thousand dollars per year. Obviously, we can run Medicaid more efficiently.

Carson wasn’t done, not even close, but that gives you a taste of his verbal dissertation. He ended the subject by insisting that critics are wrong if they say that poor or uneducated people will not be able to manage their own accounts. “Yes,” he said, “they will learn how to use the accounts, and learn not to go to the emergency room that costs four to five times more when they can go to a clinic.”

#share#All of which is well and good. Voters to whom I talk almost invariably feel comfortable with Carson’s principles, his propensity to push good policies, and his personality. What they still wonder, consistently, is whether he has the right background, the right experience, to both carry out the executive/managerial functions of the presidency and handle the politics in a constitutional system of blended powers where a fractious Congress (in theory at least) has an equal voice in policy-making.

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His answer, paraphrased, came in list form: 1) He didn’t just chair, but proselytized for and effectively created, the pediatric-neurosurgery department at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, and built it from scratch into the top-rated such department in the country. 2) He served on the corporate boards of two major international companies, Kellogg for 18 years and Costco for 16 years, giving him plenty of experience in complicated business affairs crossing international lines. 3) He started and operated a national non-profit organization that won two separate national awards, each given to only one organization per year.

“Those are not things you can do without a certain amount of executive skill,” he said, simply and quietly.

As for the political aspects of the job, Carson says he is unconcerned with the supposed complications and difficulties involved:

I know the Constitution extremely well and I know how it is supposed to work. And I know how to put together teams of experts and get them to work together. If you put together the kind of teams that I put together, for instance, to separate conjoined twins, then you have to work with a lot of people who have very big egos [just like in Congress]. If you can do that, then this should be a piece of cake.

Plus, if you look at Congress and the amount of political experience its members have, collectively, it’s more than 5,000 years — and where has that gotten us?

#related#As with almost everything Carson says, his delivery was deadpan. Somehow, the deadpan delivery made linger what was really a minor and rather predictable zinger. We’ve seen and heard it in the debates: It’s not just the half-smile on his face, but something about his intonation, that makes you want to lightly chuckle with him — as you acknowledge that he has found a way to cut through the fog and, with gentle humor, skewer something that the general public clearly wants skewered.

Ben Carson makes a listener want to keep listening. Listening — and nodding affirmatively, not just in momentary approval, but at a deeper level of consideration. He may or may not win the nomination. But he’s no shooting star, either. He’s a serious contender, with staying power.

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