The movement from inspirational speaker to president of the United States is a difficult one. Ben Carson found this out the hard way when a higher level of scrutiny was applied to his biography last week. But there are plenty of reasons beyond the admissions office of West Point as to why Carson should never have even attempted it, and why evangelicals should cease to back him.
Squint hard enough, and you can almost see why Ben Carson has such a devoted following, especially among conservative evangelicals. Carson's accomplishments in neurosurgery are as impressive as Donald Trump's in real estate. His personality is unlike any other in politics, and almost the opposite of what you'd expect in a man seeking the most powerful political office on Earth. He speaks softly, has equipoise, and is often self-effacing.
If you are the type of person who thinks long experience in elected politics gradually makes a person unsuited to authority — or corrupt, worldly, compromising, bubble-wrapped, and politically correct — Carson is the man of the hour. And he has the highest favorability rating in the race. If you're an evangelical, Carson is despised by all the right people: the media and liberals who want to trip him up with his quotes on Hitler or his opposition to abortion. Integrity like that might make him indestructible.
Okay, now stop squinting: This is a man who is not suited to be president of the United States. And he is a man who is ultimately reducing evangelical influence on our political culture.
Carson's hands may be steady enough to separate conjoined twins, but he has an awkward feel for politics. He has only recently converted to conservative ideas on health care. His inability to reach for analogies beyond slavery or Nazism betrays an amateurish and shallow grasp of political ideas and history.
Instead of building a real campaign apparatus with millions in small-donor contributions, he's building a churn-and-burn direct-mail operation. That's a great project for keeping a few people busily employed in Reston, Virginia, and it will buy a mansion in McLean for an aging right-wing activist, but it won't win the presidency. These are wasted resources. If building a real campaign is our test for the presidency, Carson is failing.
Carson has nothing to offer the political process or the presidency, but to loan it his personal virtues. The Republican Party is desperate for a platform and message that can win a majority in a presidential election, an elusive goal in the past six elections. Carson's conservatism is a Cliffs Notes version of the 1980 Republican platform. The only (unfounded) hope is that African Americans who may have known Carson as an inspirational speaker will prefer him to Hillary Clinton, a candidate who will defend and expand on policies that majorities of African Americans like.
And even Carson's virtues are starting to crack under pressure. Carson's story of religious transformation, which has gone from personal testimony to bookable persona is under question. And, boy, did he suddenly become prickly and defensive. It's bonkers that Carson and the media are debating not only whether he lied about getting admitted to West Point, but also about whether he attempted to stab a childhood friend — and Carson is the one arguing that he did! This is sketch comedy, not a campaign. And as his biography continues to get shredded, it will become a farce.
Earlier this year, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat noted that evangelical affinity for Carson reflected a misbegotten search for a godly hero:
This is part of why evangelical Christians, notwithstanding their numbers, tend to have less influence over actual Republican governance than fiscal conservatives or foreign-policy hawks. They're always looking for a hero (or heroine), while the party's other factions focus on staffing decisions and policy commitments, where the real work of politics takes place. [The New York Times]
To be more explicit: Evangelicals will not win by looking for an anointed man of God and giving him license to whip the rest of the Republican Party and country into shape. These efforts are a way of seceding from normal American politics, both as a matter of imagination and as a practical endeavor of networking and staffing. The Carson campaign is a despair of politics, an attempt to outsource a movement's hustle and everyday righteousness to a single hero.
The name of the game in political influence is infiltration, institution building, and expertise. Evangelical political victories will happen and become sustainable when it doesn't matter whether the Republicans nominate a co-religionist like Mike Huckabee or a non-practicing Jack Mormon like Jon Huntsman. It will happen when the political culture and party apparatus is so infused with evangelicals' influence that policy decisions are made in their image, when they are the GOP's most effective fundraisers and best activists, and live persuasively. And evangelicals should know this from their Bible: Joseph rises to power in Egypt through hard work and showing prosperous results for his master and, ultimately, for Pharaoh.
Carson is diverting monetary, emotional, and organizational resources away from the real long-term work of evangelical politics. He has no ideas to offer his party, which is in need of them. He has no political leadership skills for a culture that is desperate for them. He is pulling evangelical influence and resources away from candidates who can win, which ultimately enhances the grip of the more secular, more liberal Republican establishment. This is political malpractice.