With Friends Like Ben Carson, the GOP Doesn’t Need Enemies

Craziest idea for a Republican presidential candidate ever?

In the months (and years) before a U.S. presidential election it’s not uncommon for voters from both parties to flirt with a variety of unorthodox candidates before settling on the sane choice—usually the person who is most likely to win and least likely to do any serious damage. Last year, the GOP ran slipshod through a rogues’ gallery of these fringe candidates-of-the-moment, much to the delight of late night hosts and political writers, myself included. By the time the dust cleared, they’d tarnished the party’s image so deeply that all the polish in the world couldn’t clean it up before November. And we all know how that story ended.

It’s still a long way to 2016, but after the Bachmann-Trump-Cain-Perry debacle of 2012, I’d have thought conservatives would be a little more discerning about who they choose to carry their banner into the next election cycle. It turns out I was wrong. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Benjamin Carson, the GOP’s wingnut of the hour.

After making a splash in February at the National Prayer Breakfast—where, in a break from long-standing protocol, he used the lectern to bash Obamacare with the president sitting just a few feet away—the right latched on to Carson like he was the Second Coming (which, incidentally, the doctor, as a Seventh Day Adventist, believes could happen any day now.)

The Wall Street Journal hailed “Ben Carson for President” in an op-ed published on February 8th, and that same day, Sean Hannity used his show to broach the subject of a possible 2016 run. “Would you ever run for president, sir?,” Hannity asked Carson. “I would vote for you in a heartbeat.”

A week later, the conservative pundit upped the ante, featuring Carson on an hour-long special under the headline “Saving America: Dr. Benjamin Carson’s fight for real change.” Since then Fox News has become the lead cheerleader for a Carson candidacy in 2016.

And so Carson’s star began to rise. While some more astute conservative commentators called the doctor out for pandering (Fox’s own Cal Thomas insists Carson owes the president an apology for his impiety), and others noted his lack of experience, the organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)—recognizing a cresting wave—invited him to speak at their March conference where attendees fell for his 2016 presidential fantasy hook, line and sinker. What’s that they say about not learning from your mistakes?

When it comes to politics, Carson is the black Donald Trump, except he’s more dangerous because he actually has a brain in his head. Indeed, he is quite brilliant. As the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University Hospital, Carson has done pioneering work on the separation of conjoined twins. He graduated Yale on a scholarship and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008 by President George W. Bush. His personal rags-to-riches story is equally compelling.

But Carson should focus on what he knows how to do best: fixing people’s brains. After the upset of 2012, he has no place in a party seeking to find its footing in a nation of voters who find its message—especially on social issues—less and less appealing. Carson prides himself on saying shocking things, which is not necessarily a bad thing, except that the things he says are largely out of step with the way the rest of Americans think. In a country where nearly 60 percent of voters support gay marriage, he has repeatedly and publicly described homosexuality as a sin. He is a brilliant scientist who is happy to ignore science when it suits him (Carson is a creationist who believes the Earth was literally created by God in six days), and he is a former welfare baby who has credited food stamps for his family’s success but seems willing to cut entitlements for others.

Like all of his ilk, Carson’s ascendency promises to be brief; he is already well on the road to self-destruction following an interview last week on CNN in which he compared homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia. His views are so skewed that there’s a petition circulating to keep him from delivering commencement remarks to graduating students at his own institution (Carson has since offered to withdraw.)

Is this the model the GOP plans to adopt to win in 2016? Haven’t Republicans drifted far enough from the American people? Is it really wise to alienate voters even more? The brief rise of Dr. Carson is evidence that, for all their talk, conservative leaders learned nothing about what it’s going to take to stop their party’s decline into obsolescence.

If the GOP plans to stake its future on people like Dr. Benjamin Carson, they shouldn’t plan on changing the drapes on Pennsylvania Ave. any time soon.