Matt Lewis

How conservatives mishandled Dr. Ben Carson

On March 25, I wrote a controversial post about Dr. Ben Carson (controversial because it wasn’t 100 percent positive) that ended thusly:

“…I fear that conservatives are actually doing Dr. Carson no favors by immediately granting him rock star status. Sure, he’s a brilliant doctor, but politics is different from everything else. No matter how smart you are, it takes time to grow into a political career as a politician or a pundit. And sadly, Dr. Carson has been deprived of that.”

Almost immediately after writing that, Dr. Carson become embroiled in controversy over comments that “be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality,” the definition of marriage cannot be changed.

He subsequently went on MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell (another interesting decision) to clarify his remarks. Additionally, National Review reported that a petition was distributed by Johns Hopkins students to have him removed as a commencement speaker.

Some conservatives will cheer this as evidence that Dr. Carson is speaking truth to power. But he could be a much more effective witness for his conservative beliefs were he to maintain his stature as a respected professional within the medical profession and academic community.

The last thing conservatives need is another red-meat-hurling political pundit. They’re a dime a dozen. We could easily pluck one from a “morning zoo” radio show tomorrow. What conservatism really needs is, I don’t know…a highly-respected African-American pediatric neurosurgeon who could lend credibility and seriousness to the cause.

The problem for Dr. Carson is that he seems to be trading in a highly-respected job to become a mere pundit. What is more, he hasn’t yet developed the ability to communicate his conservative message at a level his stature demands. (To be sure, there would be attacks on Dr. Carson no matter how safe he played it. Liberals will rightly view him as a threat. What I am proposing is that he not make their job any easier for them.)

Dr. Carson is obviously a brilliant man, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to politics. The most successful people often make the worst candidates. Wesley Clark was a general, but that didn’t stop him from quickly sinking his political opportunities. Political muscles are different from other muscles, and they must be developed.

Most pols and pundits get to make their mistakes in the minor leagues — not under the glare of the bright lights of Yankee Stadium. Politicians and pundits spend years toiling in the minor leagues, learning the issues — and how to communicate those issues — before making it to “the show.” Mixing metaphors here, throwing someone with so much potential into the deep end of the pool is taking a chance they will quickly learn to swim. More often than not, they will sink.

Of course, a rational conservative movement might treat a rising star like Dr. Carson the way the Nationals treated ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg after an injury: with kid gloves. Strasburg, they reasoned, was the future, so they would protect him. But movements aren’t top-down enterprises like ball clubs, and so, the desire to promote a charismatic and diverse conservative leader — and the desire for ratings, page views, etc. — trump prudence. After all, when a team hasn’t won in a long time, they get desperate.

In this case, it is incumbent upon Dr. Carson and his advisers to turn down some offers — to sometimes say “no” to opportunities and invitations. But that’s easier said than done in this business.

It’s not too late to turn this around, but I fear Dr. Carson will become a conservative caricature — easily dismissed as a crank — if he continues down this path.