Politics & Policy

What Ben Carson Doesn’t Know

Carson campaigns on Henderson, Nev. (Ethan Miller/Getty)
It’s silly to say a neurosurgeon isn’t ‘smart.’ But ‘uninformed’ is another story.

Ben Carson is not stupid, and anyone who says he is can be ignored in serious political discussions.

But a man who spends his life reaching the summit of the medical profession obviously hasn’t had a lot of time to learn the details of government policy. Every presidential candidate faces a learning curve; one who has no history in politics, such as Carson, faces a steeper climb.

Duane Clarridge, chief of the CIA’s Latin American division from 1981 to 1987 and an advisor to Carson, caused a major kerfuffle this week when he told the New York Times that, “Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East.” He added that Carson needs to start holding weekly conference calls with briefs on foreign policy so “we can make him smart.”

That last word suggests a bit of unwarranted smugness; it’s hard to find a brain surgeon who isn’t “smart.” Carson is smart; he’s just not informed, and that will undoubtedly hurt his presidential prospects until it’s rectified.

The Carson campaign responded that Clarridge simply doesn’t know the candidate’s full briefing schedule, and that his judgment may be impaired, castigating the newspaper for taking “advantage of an elderly gentleman.”

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Whatever the truth of this defense, it’s hard to argue with the impression that Carson could use a few more sit-down foreign-policy briefings. In last week’s debate, during a discussion of Syria, Carson contended that, “we also must recognize that it’s a very complex place. You know, the Chinese are there, as well as the Russians, and you have all kinds of factions there.”

Carson’s campaign later stated he didn’t mean that Chinese military forces were in Syria, but that China provided weapons and military equipment to Syria’s regime in the past — a much more defensible assertion, albeit a considerable stretch from the plain meaning of his words.

Questions about Carson’s foreign-policy knowledge have bedeviled the candidate since his effort began. Back in March, Carson generated some furrowed brows when he contended to Hugh Hewitt that the radical Islam predates . . . Mohammed:

CARSON: I’ve not read that particular one, but I have had a chance to look at a lot of material on not only al-Qaeda, but the radical Islamic movement in general, the kinds of things that motivate and drive them.

HEWITT: What do you consider to be their tap root? What is the origin of their rage, in your view?

CARSON<: Well, first of all, you have to recognize they go back thousands and thousands of years, really back to the battle between Jacob and Esau.

Later in that interview, Carson appeared to suggest that the Baltic states are not part of NATO, and conceded he needed to get more up to speed on defense-spending priorities.

#share#Just last Sunday, Fox News’s Chris Wallace asked Carson a seemingly easy question about which allies he would turn to in assembling the “international coalition” with which he hopes to fight ISIS. Most casual viewers could think of quite a few options — almost any NATO country, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Kuwait, Bahrain, or Australia. Carson offered several answers on what he would have the coalition do, but Wallace kept pressing for which countries Carson would call. Finally, he got the response he was looking for:

WALLACE: But can you tell us who you would call first, sir? On the international scene.

CARSON: I would call for all of the Arab states to be involved in this. I would call for all of our traditional allies to be involved in this. You know, I don’t want to leave anybody out. Because really, this is — when you’re talking about a global jihad movement, you’re talking about a movement whose eventual goal is to dominate the entire world.

Moments later, Carson just seemed to talk in circles, saying that the number of troops sent to fight ISIS wasn’t important, and then saying it was:

Obviously, we have boots on the ground there already. You know, that’s an emotionally laden term. How many people do we need to be there? It’s really what are they doing? How effective are they? That’s — that I think is much more important than the number of people who are there, and utilizing our special ops, which are absolutely terrific in conjunction with the Kurds in northern Iraq, you can see how effective that is. And as others are able to join us, the Iraqi forces, you know, played an important role in that, too.

Carson’s rhetorical fumbles have mostly come in the national-security and foreign-policy arenas, but economics has occasionally tripped him up, too. Here’s his response to a question from Marketplace’s Kai Rysdal about raising the debt ceiling:

RYSSDAL: Should the Congress then and the president not raise the debt limit? Should we default on our debt?

CARSON: Let me put it this way: if I were the president, I would not sign an increased budget. Absolutely would not do it. They would have to find a place to cut.

RYSSDAL: To be clear, it’s increasing the debt limit, not the budget, but I want to make sure I understand you. You’d let the United States default rather than raise the debt limit.

CARSON: No, I would provide the kind of leadership that says, “Get on the stick guys, and stop messing around, and cut where you need to cut, because we’re not raising any spending limits, period.”

RYSSDAL: I’m gonna try one more time, sir. This is debt that’s already obligated. Would you not favor increasing the debt limit to pay the debts already incurred?

CARSON: What I’m saying is what we have to do is restructure the way that we create debt. I mean if we continue along this, where does it stop? It never stops.

From this exchange, many concluded that Carson didn’t grasp the difference between the debt ceiling — the total limit on how much money the government can borrow to meet existing obligations like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the debt — and the annual budget.

RELATED: Sorry, Media, You Won’t Destroy Ben Carson

In the same interview, Carson seemed to suggest that a balanced budget was just around the corner. “If we simply refuse to extend the budget by one penny for three to four years, you got a balanced budget. Just like that,” he said. “So this is not [a] pie in the sky, very difficult thing to accomplish.” Here, Carson seemed to be suggesting that if we keep spending flat for the next three or four years, tax revenue will naturally catch up, balancing the money coming into the U.S. Treasury and the money going out.

#related#Figures for federal receipts (money coming in) and outlays (money going out) can be found here. Outlays in 2014 were $3.5 trillion; the government predicts receipts will hit $3.5 trillion in 2016. On the surface, Carson’s contention would appear correct. But legally required outlays will be higher with another two years’ worth of baby boomers retiring, collecting Social Security (roughly $100 billion), and going on Medicare, and with more individuals joining Medicaid ($200 billion). Required interest payments on the debt are likely to be closer to $300 billion in 2016 than the $200 billion they are now. So keeping spending “flat” at the current level will require about $400 billion in cuts from discretionary spending in 2016 — a “very difficult thing to accomplish.”

Policy missteps aside, though, Carson has contended that he’s quickly getting up to speed.

“You know, I know a lot more than I knew. A year from now — a year from now, I will know a lot more than I know now,” he told Judy Woodruff. “In medicine, we have something called continuing medical education. You have to get those credits in order to be recertified. I think that applies to every aspect of our lives, particularly in a rapidly changing world.”

Carson will need to schedule some time for continuing political education if he hopes to stay near the top of the GOP primary heap in the months ahead.

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.

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