Ben Carson is the rarest of political candidates: He actually learns from his mistakes.
Most candidates don’t just fail to improve on the trail — many actually regress. Upon declaring for political office, laments conservative leader Morton Blackwell, “Every candidate promptly loses about 30 I.Q points.”
Not so with Carson, who has only upped his game.
I’m not the only one who has noticed. During Tuesday night’s panel discussion on Fox News’ “Special Report,” Bret Baier recalled Carson’s past appearance on the panel: “He said, ‘The thing about me is that I learn.’ And, you know, you watch him on this campaign,” Baier continued, “…he has been learning. The sound bites have changed. His talking points have changed. His presentation has changed. And he has evolved.”
This, I think, is an argument for entering a presidential race early — and doing so on your own terms.
Barack Obama had numerous debates with Hillary Clinton in 2008, and he committed most of his mistakes and stumbles early on (before the scrutiny and media microscope became intense). Obama clearly benefited from that process. Now, juxtapose that with Sarah Palin — who was airdropped into the middle of a presidential race that summer (having little time to bone up on the issues) — or Rick Perry, who entered the 2012 race late and never seemed to be up to speed. (In fairness to Perry, he did bone up on the issues and make it a point to improve between his 2012 and 2016 bids.)
It’s important to allow time for this maturation process. Running for president is a big deal, and even people who excel in other areas of life are rarely ready for the national media spotlight. For years, I’ve been arguing that Carson was ill-served by conservatives who prematurely thrust him into the deep end of the pool. I was also critical of his incendiary rhetoric, which I believe only served to undermine his inspiring story and conservative message, even as it drew plaudits from the base who just wants someone who “tells it like it is!” And I still think I was right. But Carson has also impressed me by escaping this conservative ghetto, and rising to the occasion. Most people are susceptible to the temptation of eschewing the hard work of improving — especially when hurling red meat garners results and ink.
If politicians are known to have egos, then you might expect a world-class surgeon (a profession that lends itself to developing a god complex!) to have a huge one. But a willingness to learn is a sign of humility, and Dr. Carson is showing signs that he is introspective and self-critical.
Rather than blame the “lamestream” media for hyping his gaffes (and reveling in the attention and praise his controversial comments garnered on the Right), he has set about minimizing his mistakes. “I’ve learned how to phrase things in a way that people can actually hear what I’m saying,” Carson recently told Howard Kurtz. “If you use certain words, it can be the most wonderful thing [but] they won’t hear it.”
The good news for Carson is that he has continued to perform well in the polls, even as he has tempered his rhetoric to match his personality. What is more, Donald Trump has expanded the Overton Window, making everyone on the Right (including Carson) seem like a moderate compromise candidate, in comparison.
And perhaps that’s just what Carson will be — an acceptable compromise. Like Trump (and Fiorina), Carson ironically benefits from having zero elected experience. And like Trump, he holds to some unorthodox ideas for a conservative. But Carson is also a highly respected neurosurgeon, an African-American Republican with a tremendous personal story, and a man who is utterly compelling and impossible to dislike (listen to my 2014 podcast discussion with Ben Carson).
If and when Donald Trump stumbles or recedes, don’t be surprised if Dr. Ben Carson gets his moment (or maybe more?) in the spotlight. And when that moment comes, we will see if he really has learned his lesson, and is prepared to seize the day.
Could he become president? Everything I know about history and politics suggests he won’t. But then again, the rules are in flux. If a poor boy from Detroit can grow up to become so famous that they make a TV movie about him, it’s hard to count that man out.
Note: The author’s wife advises Rick Perry’s campaign and previously served as a consultant for Ted Cruz for Senate.