Yesterday, the Republican presidential primary contest became a whole lot less serious and a whole lot more fun. Two candidates railing against “the political class” announced their candidacies with variations of the “I am not a politician” meme which was, with its utterance, no longer the case. Dr. Ben Carson and Ms. Carly Fiorina are now officially in the field.
I cannot outdo the brutal, hilarious takedown of Ben Carson’s egotism that Dana Milbank penned this morning in the Washington Post. Milbank skewers Carson’s willingness to place himself alongside the likes of George Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The thing Carson appears to want, if the video is to be believed, is not so much to live in the White House as to have his face carved into Mount Rushmore.
Carson’s “I am not a politician” meme however is even thinner than Milbank makes out. After making his announcement, Carson flew to Texas to be with his mother, who is gravely ill. When my mother was gravely ill, I did not embark upon a new career path: I made arrangements to stay in Connecticut and be at her side for an indefinite period of time, which turned out to be a little more than six months. Not everyone has the flexibility at work to do that, to be sure, but Ben Carson surely does. Instead, he will be roving through diners and living rooms in Iowa for the next six months. The first time he belches the words “family values” on the stump, I hope someone will ask him how his mother is doing. Only a politician would choose the stump over a dying mom.
My worry, however, is not with Dr. Carson’s family arrangements. My worry is that he, or someone like him, could become what Franklin Roosevelt thought Huey Long had become, the most dangerous man in America. I worry about what would happen to the social safety net if any Republican captured the White House in 2016. I worry that if the GOP were to win, income inequality would grow and grow, the fracturing of our society clothed in rosy verbiage about freedom and opportunity. I worry that a Republican president would be more likely to surround him or herself with foreign policy advisors who see recourse to war not as a last resort but as a normal means of extending American power, even though the actual effects of U.S. led wars as often as not end up reducing American influence and power as extending them.
These worries attach themselves to the entire Republican field. But, Carson is different. His soft but charismatic speaking style, his extraordinary personal story, his undoubted skill as a surgeon, all make him the kind of person to whom Americans, sensing the dysfunction of politics has grown overwhelming, might turn. I am amazed at Carson’s skills as a surgeon: Separating the first twins joined at the head is a stunning accomplishment. But, human genius is not so easily transferable from one variety of expertise to another. If you doubt it, flip the equation: Would you ask a highly successful, skilled politician to perform neurosurgery? But, that might not matter. Millions of Americans voted for Ross Perot on the promise implied by his successes as a businessman. Perot, like Carson, articulated a simpleton’s political platform. The problems facing America were for Perot technocratic and mechanical. He was going to lift up the hood and fix what was wrong. Carson believes that what ails America has to do with a loss of character and grit, but why would we expect a politician to supply what only a culture can supply? Here is one of the sift underbellies of contemporary conservatism – and we see it in discussions about the family within the Church too: They bemoan cultural changes and ignore those cultural factors that do not agree with their political agenda. The grinding poverty of the inner city surely has something to do with the breakdown of the family in urban, and now suburban, America, with the consequent extension of yet more poverty. Even framing the problem is complex – and it should start with reading Robert Putnam’s new book “Our Kids” – but giving speeches about character in hopes of securing 22 percent of the vote of Republican caucus goers in Iowa will not lift anyone out of poverty.
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Carly Fiorina’s candidacy is even more loathsome. Her claim to fame is to have worked her way up from a secretary at a small real estate firm to become CEO of a major corporation. “It’s only possible in the United States….” Fiorina told an audience in Iowa last month, evidently unaware of the humble beginnings of, say, Margaret Thatcher and Ed Miliband. She subscribes to the usual GOP nonsense about getting government out of the way so that entrepreneurial America can tackle the nation’s problems, even though many of the nation’s problems are the consequence of that entrepreneurial sensibility and the materialism it has made omnipotent and ubiquitous in our culture. What Fiorina really brings to the race is the ability to say catty things about Hillary Clinton without being labeled sexist.
What none of the GOP candidates has so far is an idea. Not one of them has pointed to a specific policy proposal that might alleviate some of the challenges the nation faces. The Republican primary is turning into a horrible, funny, scary, reality TV show, “Voting with the Stars.” It may be entertaining. In my darker moments I ask: Where is Edward Gibbon when we need him. In my lighter moments I remember that the nation survived Coolidge and Hoover and Nixon. Still, serious times call for serious candidates. Yesterday, two very unserious candidates entered the fray and the danger is that their simplistic anti-politician rant might catch fire.