SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Ben Carson last week took the stage inside a dimmed arena at Wofford College, just a short drive from Cowpens, South Carolina, home of the pivotal upstate battle where southern rebels helped turn the tide in the Revolutionary War. The 64-year-old retired neurosurgeon had arrived at the venue in need of reversing his own stalled momentum in the unsteady battle to become the GOP nominee next year.
The unavoidable remedy was to directly confront a flagrant weakness that had shown signs of eroding his candidacy.
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“Some people think that every president has to be a foreign affairs expert, has to know everything about the history of Russia. Well, that’s not true. But you’ve got to have people around you who know everything about the history of Russia and you have to know how to use that information,” Carson explained.
Alleviating bubbling worries about his fluidity on foreign affairs was of top order for Carson on this night. Having just returned from a surprise two-day trip to Jordan to visit a Syrian refugee camp, he appeared intent on sharing his on-the-ground experience in the Middle East as a way to offset his thin resume on grappling with global tumult.
His essential message was not to deny the contention that he’s a novice on national security and worldwide hot spots. Instead, he argued that inexperience on that front is no weakness when one possesses the brains and character to know that no one person – not even one commander in chief – can, in fact, know it all.
But yes, he also made sure to reference his talks with “many military strategists,” and let it be known he was spending more time hitting briefing books.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time bulking up with stuff. I think I’m going to compare quite favorably with anybody else out there who’s been around doing anything, being a governor, being a senator, being a real estate mogul,” Carson said, instigating laughs that morphed into warm applause.
Less than eight weeks before the Iowa caucuses kick off 2016 primary voting, Carson is confronting the most substantial challenge of his campaign. He is dropping in polling – down 8 percentage points nationally in a month’s span among Republicans, and languishing in fifth place in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire. In Iowa, perhaps the early state best suited to Carson’s profile, he’s being overtaken by the fiery candidacy of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. On Monday, a Monmouth University survey showed Cruz climbing into the lead there for the first time, with Carson plummeting to fourth place.
His slippage isn’t due to any broadsides from other rivals. With the exception of Donald Trump, they seem at peace with virtually ignoring Carson, choosing to watch him slowly unravel by his own doing.
The series of land mines the first-time political candidate has stepped on over the last month shows that hands-off calculus may have been shrewd.
First, Carson was forced to defend himself from a report that called into question his story about being offered a scholarship to the U.S. Military Academy. He weathered that sufficiently, forcing Politico to print a lengthy editor’s note at the top of its piece after the news outlet changed its headline and adjusted key details.
But making the media the foil is an easy and profitable task in the Republican sphere – it was more a rolling series of dubious statements and a jolting refocus on national security that have sharply injured Carson. BuzzFeed posted an old video of a Carson commencement address in which he told graduates the Egyptian pyramids were built to store grain, rather than house dead pharaohs. The video, which has earned more than 175,000 YouTube views, made Carson the butt of a torrent of fast-and-easy jokes online.
A week later came the Paris attacks, ushering in a new level of gravity. Carson went on “Fox News Sunday” in the aftermath and dispensed a series of evasive, meandering answers about how he’d confront the Islamic State group. The Daily Beast called it a “nightmare foreign policy interview.” The Washington Post, more delicately, declared that Carson “struggled.”
Two days after that, a top national security adviser to Carson amazingly griped to The New York Times that the candidate needed more briefings “so we can make him smart.” When Trump sparked another controversy by claiming thousands of Muslims in New Jersey had cheered the collapse of the twin towers during the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Carson was forced to retract a statement signaling his agreement. He told ABC News he mistook the Middle East for the Garden State. That evening, Redstate.com, an influential conservative blog, put up a post titled, “Is Ben Carson Collapsing?”
The Thanksgiving holiday, which prompted a brief pause in rolling political coverage, couldn’t have arrived soon enough for Team Carson. It provided an opportunity to reset the narrative, thus the jaunt overseas to serve up a new storyline the candidate could own and use to repair his bruised credibility. This would display that while he doesn’t know it all, he knows enough.
In multiple stops in the military-friendly early primary state of South Carolina last week, Carson recounted his experience meeting Syrian refugees. On hanging projectors behind him, pictures flashed of his encounters with officials in headscarves.
For weeks, a stateside debate has simmered about whether to allow thousands of fleeing refugees into the U.S., or – as Carson put it during an appearance at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina – to “be selfish” and reject them.
In talking to the refugees, he had discovered a third way he said was being completely ignored by the mainstream media: Support those already operating camps in Jordan, to allow them to expand.
“They didn’t say, ‘Import us,'” Carson recalled of his conversations. “They said, ‘Support people like the Jordanians so they can take care of us better.'”
It was classic Carson, boiling down one of the world’s most vexing problems to a single-sentence solution while breezing right past its complexity.
More than 600,000 Syrians have taken refuge in Jordan over the past four years, and aid group HAIS has reported the Zaatari camp is at capacity and the Azraq camp has been without electricity and bears security concerns. Carson visited both.
Chris Van Aller, an international politics professor at Winthrop University who attended Carson’s presentation, said the Republican’s prescription failed to take into account that these types of camps have existed all over the region for years without end.
“The camp is not the solution. While he’s absolutely right to say we should help the camps financially, that’s true, but that’s not a real solution,” Aller says. “The fact is Jordan is really overwhelmed by these camps.”
The second part of Carson’s pitch was a revised attempt at formulating a military strategy to defeat the Islamic State group. He emphasized the need for cyber weapons to disrupt the terrorist group’s reach on social media and said it was imperative that allies take back land and weapons and interrupt the extremists’ financing.
But while those are evident goals, Carson still lacked a clear plan outlining exactly how he would reach them.
“You keep chasing them every place they go, you shut off their money, you take off their oil. Pretty soon, you have a really effective strategy,” he said.
At Wofford, Van Hipp – a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman and current chairman of consulting firm American Defense International – introduced Carson glowingly as the first major presidential candidate to visit the Syrian refugee camps.
His first question, drawn from college students, was as direct as it was pertinent, given Carson’s trip and focus of his preceding remarks: “Is it in the interest of the United States to arm Syrian rebels?”
Carson dodged, retreating to the safe, banal and familiar.
“It is in the interest of the United States of America to get rid of ISIS and to get rid of radical Islamic terrorism,” he said, using a popular acronym for the Islamic State group.
Moments later, when Hipp served up the open-ended question about how to confront “radical Islam,” Carson uttered a dispassionate response that appeared to miss the weight of the threat, especially when speaking to an increasingly hawkish Republican primary electorate.
Serve this same question up to Cruz, and he’d say he’d make sure the Islamic State group knew it had signed its “death warrant.” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida would brand the fight a “clash of civilizations.”
Carson instead spoke of the need for better communication between federal and local law enforcement and for smarter social media tactics. To counter the terrorist group’s propaganda, he also suggested accentuating American values and principles, but then bizarrely cited supporters of abortion rights to explain why some people would gravitate toward the Islamic State group’s message.
“There are millions of Americans who think that it’s OK to kill a baby. So, why wouldn’t we recognize that there are people who have all kinds of aberrant thinking patterns?” he asked.
The next morning, Carson ventured north to the nation’s capital to address the Republican Jewish Coalition, a group of affluent, elite and politically connected players whose foremost concern is the survival of Israel.
Carson spoke carefully from a prepared text, acknowledging it “may be the first time anybody’s seen me doing that.” But even with the script, he bungled the pronunciation of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, calling it “hummus” and “A-mas,” and peculiarly declared that peace in the Middle East “is not predicated on peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary for President George W. Bush who serves on the Republican Jewish Coalition’s board of directors, says Carson missed an opportunity to impress both stylistically and on substance.
“He barely looked up, there was no delivery to it and it went on for 30 minutes,” Fleischer says of Carson’s performance. “He failed to show a level of fluency and comfort and generalized knowledge that would allow him to pass the test. He has to pass the test every day now. Every day you’re not gaining in the primary, you’re losing. And he’s had a bunch of days now where he’s been losing.”
“This guy makes an honorable effort, shall we say, to get to know the issues. But it’s taken me 30 years to begin to know some of them,” says Van Aller, the university professor. He went on to make an unfavorable analogy between Carson’s reliance on advisers to Bush’s dependency on a team of foreign policy hands.
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“These experts said, ‘Go into Iraq, they’ll welcome you like France did in 1944.’ And of course that didn’t happen at all,” he says.
But despite a growing number of outside experts and some Republicans holding doubts about Carson’s commander in chief credentials, many of his core supporters are sticking with him and show no signs of abandonment. They even parrot his same justification in defending his knowledge deficit, and seem quite comfortable with someone who isn’t so smooth and polished.
- “You can’t be 100 percent experienced at everything. But you can be a leader and understand how to hire the right people to do the job,” says Jim Hendrix, a retiree from Fort Mill, South Carolina. “If there’s a candidate out there who says he’s good at everything, he’s a liar.”
- “Nobody can do it by themselves. I don’t care how experienced they are, they still have to have people around them that have experience who know how to go forward,” says Sherry Jordan, who works at the library at Winthrop University.
- “If I were still in the military and he was the chief of staff, or the commander in chief, rather, I would follow him and I would not hesitate to take the orders under this president,” said Mark Wall, an Anderson, South Carolina, pastor whom Carson recruited to organize a coalition of faith leaders in the state.
Still, polling shows there are also plenty of Republicans taking pause. A CNN national survey released last week found Carson running fourth – behind Trump, Cruz and Rubio – on which candidate is best equipped to handle foreign policy and the Islamic State group. Carson lagged on these issues even before the Paris massacre and San Bernardino, California, shootings, but now they’ve undeniably become the pre-eminent focus.
“But some people say, ‘But you’re a doctor, you’re about saving lives. How can you be talking about, ya know, getting rid of ISIS and killing people and doing things like this?'” Carson relayed at the gathering at Wofford.
For this, he returned to his most familiar area of expertise: medicine. The doctor noted that those in the health care field need to enroll in continuing medical education, in order to stay well-versed in evolving areas of the profession.
“Well, the world is exactly the same way,” he said. “The world is constantly undergoing change, and therefore you can never sit on your laurels and rest and think you know everything.”