American politics is improbable. Or what seemed improbable in retrospect now seems inevitable. It’s hard to sort that out. Barack Obama becoming president once seemed improbable – a black junior senator in the middle of his first term wasn’t going to go anywhere. Then he became inevitable, while Hillary Clinton, who was inevitably going to be the Democratic nominee in 2008, a year when no Republican could possibly win, was suddenly gone. She had the machinery of the whole Democratic Party behind her, and her wildly popular husband, who hadn’t been a bad president himself, at her side, but Obama was a natural. She wasn’t.
Everyone sees that now, but these things happen. On the other side, that year, Rudy Giuliani was inevitable – for about three weeks. Then the Republicans settled on John McCain – a war hero, and if not the probable next president, at least the possible next president. Sarah Palin was wholly improbable of course. Things then fell out as they inevitably had to fall out – or so it seems now. In the middle of it all no one could differentiate the improbable from the inevitable.
It was a bit easier four years later. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan weren’t a surprise. Who else were the Republicans going to run? Obama was in place and absurdly uncontroversial – all the invented scandals turned out to be nonsense. There were no surprises, just the inevitable. It was kind of boring, actually.
It won’t be boring this time around, as the improbable just happened:
Ben Carson has surged into the lead of the Republican presidential race, getting support from 29 percent of GOP primary voters, according to a brand-new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
That’s the highest percentage any GOP candidate has obtained so far in the survey.
Carson’s 29 percent is followed by Donald Trump at 23 percent, Marco Rubio at 11 percent, Ted Cruz at 10 percent and Jeb Bush at 8 percent. These findings are similar to a New York Times/CBS poll released last week, which also showed Carson in first place in the national GOP contest.
If past polling has been about Trump leading the GOP field, “then this survey is about Dr. Ben Carson, who is currently the man to beat for the Republicans,” says Democratic pollster Fred Yang, whose firm Hart Research Associates conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff.
Wasn’t Donald Trump supposed to be inevitable? He kept saying that. Given all previous polling that seemed to be so, or becoming so, but no more:
While there’s still plenty of time for an establishment GOP candidate to beat Carson or Trump, Democratic pollster Peter Hart wonders if the 2016 Republican race is shaping up to resemble 1964, when Barry Goldwater won the GOP nomination.
“What if the cake is baked?” Hart asks.
And if that metaphoric cake is baked there’s this:
Hillary Clinton is running neck-and-neck with most of the top Republican presidential contenders, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows, with Ben Carson posting the strongest numbers in test match-ups against her.
The poll found a dead heat between the Democratic former secretary of state and Mr. Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, at 47% each, if the election were held now. By contrast, Mrs. Clinton outpolls Donald Trump, the television celebrity and businessman, by an eight percentage point margin, 50%-42%.
No one expected that, but then there’s this:
Mr. Trump faces that polling disadvantage even though, in another question asked only of Republican primary voters in the poll, Mr. Trump was named the candidate most likely to become the party’s nominee. More than one-third of GOP voters said he would be the party’s nominee; Mr. Carson came in second with 25% saying he was the most likely to win.
The evidence of the improbable happening is a bit ambiguous, as it always is, but something is up, and the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza suggests this is because there is more distance between the Republican base and the professional political class than at any time in modern memory:
The establishment was convinced until a month or so ago that Jeb Bush was going to be the party’s nominee – totally ignoring the fact that in poll after poll the base made clear that it wasn’t even close to enamored with Bush.
The establishment regarded Trump as a flash in the pan who should be ignored by “serious” political people. He has now been at or near the top of the Republican field for more than 100 days.
The establishment dismissed Carson as a candidate with a narrow appeal among social conservatives. He has led the field in each of the past two national polls released on the race.
The establishment didn’t account for the improbable:
“This is not a status-quo electorate,” concluded Democratic pollster Peter Hart, part of a bipartisan team who conducts the NBC-WSJ poll.
That’s exactly right. The idea that things are going to return to “normal” sometime soon presumes that the average Republican voter finds the current definition of normal acceptable. They don’t. …
Of the four candidates with a real shot today of being the party’s nominee, two have never held elective office – and in fact have never even run before. A third, Cruz, has spent the past three years in the Senate doing everything he can to make clear that he thinks it’s all broken and that his party’s leadership has been co-opted by Democrats. Of the quartet, only Rubio comes close to fitting the definition of a “normal” candidate – and even he, at 44 and having spent just five years in the Senate, would have been considered far too inexperienced to run for president in the pre-Obama era.
All bets are off now:
What should that tell us about the Republican electorate? That the less you look and talk like a politician, the better off you are in this race. And that fundamentally upends how professional political people (including journalists) have handicapped races forever. Typically voters will flirt with, say, Howard Dean, but will ultimately return to the safer harbor offered by John Kerry. Or flirt with Mike Huckabee and settle on John McCain.
But the Republican electorate, driven by a sense that the promise of reform and overthrow represented by the tea party movement has been sacrificed at the altar of the status quo by the party’s leaders, shows no signs of falling back to a “safe” choice this time around. The “safe” choices have sold them out and they are furious about it. The promised revolution hasn’t come – even with Republicans in charge of the House and the Senate – so now it’s time to throw the political process a real curve ball.
And the establishment will just have to get used to that:
For all of the talk about Chris Christie, John Kasich and, especially, Jeb, the simple fact is that the electorate has shown little appetite for a candidate with that sort of résumé – and there’s no reason to think that will change anytime soon.
And now, Donald Trump, behind in the polls for the first time, finds himself talking like the establishment:
GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump says his Republican opponent Ben Carson “doesn’t have the experience” to be president. …
In response to the poll numbers, Trump did not take to name-calling, but he expressed doubt in the former neurosurgeon’s ability to do what is necessary as president in an interview with “Good Morning America” on Tuesday – the same day of his book signing for his new book, “Crippled America: How To Make America Great Again.”
“Look, I’m going to make the greatest deals on trade, we’re going to run the military properly, I’m gonna take care of the vets,” Trump said. “Ben can’t do those things.”
The real estate mogul said deal-making and negotiating are not Carson’s talents. Neither Trump nor Carson has held elected office.
“You know, you’re born with it,” Trump said. “It’s not his thing. He hasn’t got the temperament for it. It’s not the right thing for him.”
But that might be just the reason the guy’s poll numbers are soaring. He’s so wrong for the job that he’s right for the job, and he knows the American people:
Dr. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, joked last year during a book tour that many Americans “are stupid.”
Mother Jones on Tuesday flagged the remark from Carson’s Oct. 19, 2014 speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. After an audience member asked Carson about running as an independent – Carson said he wouldn’t “want to fracture” the GOP by doing so – the retired neurosurgeon referred to an ambiguous “they” who he accused of infiltrating the American media and school system with the goal of “fundamentally changing this nation.”
“Everything was perfect. Except they underestimated the intelligence of the American people,” Carson said. “The people are not as stupid as they think they are.”
“Many of them are stupid, okay,” he added to laughs from the audience. “But I’m talking about overall.”
He’ll say what no one else will say. Americans are really stupid, except for us. The audience loved it. It was the core message they wanted to hear, stripped of all the boring policy crap, and he added this:
Carson also credited social media and Fox News with enabling him to spread his message outside of the mainstream media.
“Even if all the media tries to shut you down – which they have tried very much to do with me,” he said. “But they can’t because the good Lord has provided me with mechanisms like my syndicated column and like Fox News. We’d be Cuba if there were no Fox News.”
Who knows what that means? Everyone there knew what that meant. Even Donald Trump wouldn’t say that. Trump is still too tethered to the conventional, and no one has gone here:
In a speech at Nashville’s massive Cornerstone Church, Republican presidential candidate and retired pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson said that his belief in Creationism helped him to better understand the workings of the human body. According to the Tennessean newspaper, Carson made two speeches at Cornerstone on Sunday, both of which seemed to be part sermon and part stump speech.
At one point, he griped that “progressives” are too critical of his Biblical views as they relate to medicine.
“They say, ‘Carson, ya know, how can you be a surgeon, a neurosurgeon, and believe that God created the Earth, and not believe in evolution, which is the basis of all knowledge and all science?'” the candidate said during his second speech.
“Well, you know, it’s kind of funny. But I do believe God created us, and I did just fine. So I don’t know where they get that stuff from, ya know? It’s not true. And in fact, the more you know about God, and the deeper your relationship with God, I think the more intricate becomes your knowledge of the way things work, including the human body,” he continued.
Carson has gone on record in the past as believing that the science of evolution is “satanic” and that the Big Bang theory is a “fairy tale.”
The man thinks science is stupid, and he’s leading in the polls and, if nominated, could easily beat Hillary Clinton. That’s improbable, unless it’s inevitable. It’s hard to tell now, but Jonathan Chait raises an interesting possibility:
On February 7, 2013, Ben Carson appeared at a National Prayer Breakfast, where he visibly annoyed President Obama by delivering a right-wing speech denouncing Obamacare and cultural liberalism, and calling for a flat tax based on the biblical tithe. Conservatives, still devastated by Obama’s reelection, took delight in the appearance on the scene of a surprising new presidential antagonist, who until that point had no political profile. “Finally, a self-reliant conservative decided to make this every bit as political as Obama does” tweeted conservative pundit David Limbaugh. The Wall Street Journal celebrated Carson’s remarks in a short editorial, headlined “Ben Carson for President.” The headline was obviously hyperbolic; nothing in the text that followed proposed that Carson run for public office.
But now Carson actually is running for president. Or is he? It is hard to tell. Conservative politics are so closely intermingled with a lucrative entertainment complex that it is frequently impossible to distinguish between a political project (that is, something designed to result in policy change) and a money-making venture. Declaring yourself a presidential candidate gives you access to millions of dollars’ worth of free media attention that can build a valuable brand. So the mere fact that Carson calls himself a presidential candidate does not prove he is actually running for president rather than taking advantage of the opportunity to build his brand. Indeed, it is possible to be actually leading the polls without seriously trying to win the presidency.
In fact, Chait sees the notion that Carson could be president as preposterous:
The problem is not only that he has never run for elected office. He has never managed a large organization; he has not worked in and around public policy, and he lacks a competent grasp of issues. His stance on health care, the closest thing to an issue with which his professional experience has brought him into contact, is gibberish. He mostly thrills audiences by scoffing at evolution and insisting Muslims be barred from the presidency, stances he cannot even defend coherently.
But Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog suggests a political project can be a money-making venture:
Why does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t it be both? Or why couldn’t he and his handlers be running a for-profit brand-building operation even as he’s actually talked himself into the notion that he seriously be the Leader of the Free World despite knowing jack about doing the job?
Chait suggests otherwise:
His campaign itself is structured much more like a scamming venture than a political one. An astronomical 69 percent of his fund-raising totals are spent on more fund-raising. (Bernie Sanders, by contrast, spends just 4 percent of his intake on fund-raising.) In addition to direct mail, Carson seems to have undertaken a massive phone-spamming operation. Spending most of your money to raise more money is not a good way to get elected president, but it is a good way to build a massive list of supporters that can later be monetized. Perhaps it is a giveaway that the official title for Armstrong Williams, the figure running the Carson “campaign,” is “business manager,” as opposed to “campaign manager.” It does suggest that Carson is engaged in a for-profit venture.
But how is this different from the way a lot of big, high-profile, lucrative churches are run in the heartland? They’re about Jesus and money. Strap a lie detector onto the preachers who run those churches and they’ll register as telling the truth when they say Christ is their top priority even though they know how focused they are on cash flow. People lie to themselves. People believe they’re good even if they’re corrupt and venal.
Of course they do, as Chait notes:
Even those concerned with his methods grant him the presumption of innocence – right-wing commentator Erick Erickson, running down Carson’s astronomical fund-raising costs, frets, “I suspect there are some who see Carson as a cash cow.” But it is a fallacy to imagine that a kook cannot also be a scammer. There is a long tradition of cult leaders, televangelists, and other snake-oil salesmen who were both.
But it’s also a fallacy to imagine that a kook and a scammer can’t also have a messiah complex. How many personality cults are there in which the guy robbing the flock blind actually believes he’s the exalted figure he tells the follower he is?
Chait grants that:
It is possible that Carson has come to genuinely believe that he is qualified to serve as president.
Steve M sees that in the tweet that Carson keeps sending out – “It is important to remember that amateurs built the Ark and it was the professionals that built the Titanic” – and adds this:
Remember, conservative rhetoric values the untutored amateur over the professional. Society’s real guarantors of personal safety are civilians with guns, not cops. College professors and Ivy League graduates are to be looked upon with suspicion; country musicians and the Duck Dynasty guys tell us the plain truth, even about science. The greatest man to ever occupy the Oval Office was an ex-movie actor regularly mocked as an unschooled dolt. Why wouldn’t a guy who’s imbibed this ideology of amateurism believe that he really can be president if lots of people are telling him he can?
But then it might not matter:
Carson’s doing a better job of running for president than people we’re all reasonably sure are running for real – Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul. Have we been wrong about them? Are they actually running for president?
Ah, but there are possible bumps in the road:
Dr. Ben Carson on Tuesday suggested that a rival presidential campaign had leaked information about his relationship to a medical supplement company to a conservative news outlet in order to discredit him.
National Review’s Jim Geraghty originally reported on Caron’s ties to the supplement maker Mannatech Inc. in January. Last week, he slammed the retired neurosurgeon after Carson claimed during the Republican presidential debate not to have had “an involvement” with Mannatech Inc. Geraghty described it as “bald-faced lies.”
On Tuesday, Breitbart executive editor Steven Bannon asked Carson in a radio interview whether the retired neurosurgeon thought that writers like Geraghty were unfairly singling him out for “special, brutal treatment.”
“Well, they’re concerned about – that obviously comes from someone on that debate stage,” Carson told Bannon on Sirius XM’s “Breitbart News Daily.” “That’s a submarine that’s sent by them. They’re very concerned about me, and they’re using National Review as their political tool. That’s pretty obvious.”
Bannon then asked if Carson believed that information was “leaked” to National Review or “weaponized” by another campaign.
“Absolutely,” Carson replied.
At that mess of a CNBC debate Carl Quintanilla asked Carson about his involvement with a company called Mannatech, which makes nutritional supplements. Carson has appeared in the company’s videos and endorsed its products, which it claims can cure autism and cancer. The company is under indictment and the endorsements are all there on tape, and a bit of a problem for his campaign and his image as a clean and honest fine fellow. But at the debate Carson called the question “propaganda” – and that’s on tape too. Ben Carson may yet turn into Rudy Giuliani, the candidate who was inevitable, for three weeks.
Of course Ben Carson could turn into Barry Goldwater in 1964, the improbable Republican nominee who went on to lose to Lyndon Johnson in a massive landslide of ridicule – but he won’t turn into the unexpected Barack Obama. Carson too is a natural, but of a different sort. And he may not be running anyway.