Moments before Tuesday night’s fear-mongering GOP debate, Ben Carson gave a preview of the utter strangeness that was to emerge from his mouth during the night’s proceedings.
During a visit to the media spin room, Carson was asked if he would need to ramp up his rhetoric in the ensuing debate. His response was nothing short of bewildering.
“Um, well maybe I’ll bring some weapons with me, spice it up a little bit,” he told ABC News, chortling at his own odd suggestion. This off-hand remark was strangely prescient, characterizing the night was to come.
Instead of the foreign policy “slam dunk” he promised in a campaign video, Carson sunk into the background as the top-tier candidates—Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and to some degree Christie—duked it out in varying dour and vicious tones.
What little stage time Carson got (some 10 minutes and 27 seconds approximately) was consumed by a highlight reel of ill-fated remarks about bombing children and disruptive coughing, and, of course, a complaint about not getting enough time.
Hugh Hewitt asked a question about the former neurosurgeon’s ability to declare war where children would inevitably end up as casualties. The response could have served as a demonstration of strength, a label which often evades Carson next to the bombastic yelling of Trump, but ended up as an ill-fated comparison to his medical experience.
“Well, interestingly enough, you should see the eyes of some of those children when I say to them ‘We’re going to have to open your head up and take out this tumor,’” Carson tangentially responded. “They’re not happy about it, believe me. And they don’t like me very much at that point. But later on, they love me.”
“And by the same token,” he went on, “you have to be able to look at the big picture, and understand that it’s actually merciful if you go ahead and finish the job, rather than death by a thousand pricks.”
Hewitt pressed him by bluntly asking if Carson would be OK with the deaths of thousands of civilians and children in an effort to fight terrorism. Amidst the boos that erupted in the Venetian Casino, Carson awkwardly replied, “You got it,” seemingly not believing the words he himself was actually saying. Even when Carson leaned on what little applicable experience he has, referencing the scholars fund he created to demonstrate leadership abilities, he misfired.
“One of the things that you’ll notice if you look through my life is that I don’t do a lot of talking,” Carson said. “I do a lot of doing.” But Carson gave more than 141 paid speeches between the start of 2014 and the beginning of his campaign, not to mention an extensive, quasi-illegal book tour wedged in the middle of this campaign cycle.
His floundering in the debate may not have been so noticeable if there weren’t as much at stake for Carson. It wasn’t that long ago that Carson bolted to the front of the GOP pack, drawing the attention of Trump’s oxygen-extinguishing ire (remember when he analogized him to a child molester?).
But November’s terrorist attacks in Paris pivoted the conversation to national security and foreign policy, causing Carson, who was woefully unprepared for any in-depth conversation on either topic, to plummet in the polls.
His campaign tried to make adjustments to mold the quiet doctor into an overnight foreign policy wonk, including a trip to Syrian refugee camps, which resulted in the badly worded summarization: They were not that bad. Carson is scheduled to take another trip, this time to Africa, this month.
Carson’s campaign even released a seven-step plan to “protect America” ahead of the debate, that includes a call for a declaration of war against ISIS. Only special ops forces would be needed on the ground for the time being, his communications manager Doug Watts told The Daily Beast yesterday.
Yet in the debate, Carson seemed to be all but certain that there would be ground troops in this war.
“If our military experts say we need boots on the ground, we should put boots on the ground and recognize that there will be boots on the ground and they’ll be over here, and they’ll be their boots if we don’t get out of there now,” he said during a particularly meandering answer.
But the seventh step of the procedural is the one that probably gives the most pause. The final proposal of the Carson Doctrine to make America safe again calls for an investigation of “the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and a supporter of terrorism.”
“Given the precarious situation America is in with sleeper cells and jihadists making threats from within, and CAIR’s background, publicly stated affinity with Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, we believe further investigation is in order,” Watts elaborated.
The United Arab Emirates did in fact put CAIR on its own version of a terrorist watch list in 2014, but experts balked at the suggestion that the organization poses a viable threat in the United States.
“Carson’s remarks are typically silly,” Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institutes in Washington, told The Daily Beast. “He pontificates a great deal about Muslim and Islamic matters, and every time he opens his mouth, he reveals himself to be exceptionally ignorant and informed entirely by bigots and a hateful rhetoric.”
The bigots to whom Ibish is referring include Islamophobe and recent GOP darling Frank Gaffney Jr., who has suggested that CAIR is waging a “stealthy, pre-violent” jihad against the United States. (Gaffney also insists American Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist is secretly working to help Muslim Brotherhood moles infiltrate the U.S. government.)
Ibish explained that while CAIR may have had “origins in Brotherhood-supporting or sympathetic causes,” the organization is by no means “connected to terrorism or in any practical, material sense supportive of terrorism.”
“If Dr. Carson doesn’t realize that CAIR has been ‘investigated’ since 9/11 as thoroughly as any American organizational entity has ever been investigated by the government, he hasn’t got a clue,” Ibish added. “But then again, he is a fool.”
For their part, CAIR condemned Carson a long time ago when he said that he was against a Muslim being president.
“Ben Carson is a failing candidate grasping at straws and seeking payback for CAIR’s previous criticism of his anti-Muslim bigotry,” Corey Saylor, the national legislative director for the organization, told The Daily Beast. “He found that Islamophobia gave him a boost in the past, so he is using it again.”
But there are no obvious signs that it will give him a boost now.
Carson fell from 22 percent to 11 percent in two Washington Post-ABC News polls taken less than a month apart. And even as the campaign attempts to right the sinking ship, private tensions between business manager Armstrong Williams and other staffers are getting played out in public.
And if last night’s debate was any indication, all Carson can do is smile and feign toughness on a stage with loudmouth bigots and opportunistic politicians simply out-muscling him.
It doesn’t work to play nice anymore.