Politics & Policy

Ben Carson Is Too Nice for Wartime

(Ethan Miller/Getty)

Ben Carson is learning that Americans can’t quite picture a nice guy leading the nation during wartime.

Just six weeks ago, Carson was the co-frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. An NBC poll at the end of October put him ahead of Donald Trump by six points nationally. As recently as early November, he was ahead of Trump in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls. He led or tied six straight polls in Iowa. One poll had him within two points of Trump in New Hampshire.

A Des Moines Register cartoon from the time depicted Carson atop the peak of a roller coaster, which turned out to be prophetic: On November 13, ISIS attacked Paris, killing 130 people, and the entire focus of the Republican primary race changed.

Carson’s style on the stump is genial, soft-spoken, and big-hearted. He’s exactly the kind of man you want giving you all the options before brain surgery. He’s Quincy, not General Patton; Tony Dungy, not Rex Ryan.

Yes, he did his best to adjust his nice-guy image immediately after the attacks.

“There are those out there who have a thirst for innocent blood,” he said the following morning. “I think America’s involvement should be to eliminate them. Completely destroy them.”

But Carson doesn’t often show anger on the stump and isn’t prone to talking trash. And even when he sticks to a prepared text full of historical details, such as his speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, he gets tripped up.

#share#In the latest CBS News/New York Times survey of 431 Republican primary voters, 40 percent said they were “very confident” in Trump’s ability to handle the threat of terrorism, and another 31 percent said they were “somewhat confident.” Only 16 percent said they were “very confident” about Carson, and another 43 percent said they were “somewhat confident.”

No one would ever confuse Carson or Trump for counterterrorism-policy wonks. Neither one has laid out an extremely detailed plan to defeat ISIS. But what Trump lacks in details, he makes up for in emotional ferocity. In the weeks after Paris, Trump pledged to “bomb the s*** out of [ISIS],” bring back waterboarding because terrorists deserve it, and bar all Muslims from entering the country, before playing coy about the option of using nuclear weapons. Americans may not know exactly how a Trump administration would respond to a terrorist attack, but they know it would not take a timid half-measure.

#related#Republicans still like Ben Carson. In the same CBS/NYT survey, just 4 percent of Republicans found him the most dissatisfying option in the field. (Trump led that category at 23 percent.) 72 percent of respondents think Carson says what he believes, instead of just telling people what they want to hear. But only 47 percent think he’s offered specifics.

44 percent of Americans now think another terror attack in the coming months is “very likely” and 35 percent think it is “somewhat likely” — the highest cumulative figure since the weeks after 9/11. If terrorism remains at the forefront of Republicans’ minds well into the primary season, Carson may find it all but impossible to reverse his current slide in the polls.

In the minds of many Republicans, Carson is the right man to heal wounds, at a time when the country needs to inflict them.

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

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