As we head into the second Republican presidential debate, it’s useful to revisit the first debate to see how well our predictions have held up. Looking at my own record, I can claim a barely passing grade of 50 percent. Unlike other pundits, I did have the foresight to realize that Donald Trump had done well that night, and that his renegade campaign would continue to push past establishment candidates. Where I was wrong was in underestimating one of Trump’s rivals, Dr. Ben Carson. As the debate unfolded, I frankly thought Carson did a terrible job. His speech was often halting and uncertain, lacking the polish of the more professional politicians and the confidence of Trump, whose veteran skills as a reality show star were amply displayed by how quickly and assuredly he fielded hostile questions. Carson, to my eyes, seemed like the odd man out on stage, an undeniably gifted surgeon who was out of is depth in matters of public policy.
As we all now know, I was wrong. The first debate wasn’t a disaster for Carson but the beginning of his ascent. He quickly started rising in the polls and for the moment stands as the only serious challenger to Trump. In fact, a newly released NY Times poll shows Carson on the road to catching up with Trump.
Where did I go wrong in assessing Carson? What is the secret to his surprising surge in the polls?
What I neglected to consider was the possibility that the same electorate that would forgive Trump’s boorish and often false statements—would be equally indulgent of Carson’s lack of policy expertise. In the Fox debate, Megyn Kelly called attention to Carson’s long string of seeming embarrassing gaffes. “You’ve suggested that the Baltic States are not a part of NATO, just months ago you were unfamiliar with the major political parties and government in Israel, and domestically, you thought Alan Greenspan had been treasury secretary instead of Federal Reserve chair,” Kelly chided. Yet Carson has been hurt no more than Trump by his record of clueless and mistaken comments.
Stylistically, of course, Trump and Carson couldn’t be farther apart: Carson is as demure as Trump is bombastic, as modest as Trump is boastful, as gentle as Trump is aggressive, and as soft-spoken as Trump is loud. Yet despite these surface differences, the two men have much in common as anti-politicians. They are both candidates whose appeal lies in the fact that they are not polished in the familiar manner of professional pols and have been untainted by the compromises made by those who have actually held elected office.
But they are appealing to different sets of Republican voters. Leaving aside Trump’s xenophobic immigration record, he’s more moderate than Carson, and the other candidates, on a host of issues ranging from taxes to health care. While Trump has managed to gain traction with Republicans who identify themselves as moderate, Carson is making a more traditional pitch to the party’s hardline conservative base. For those who aren’t on the far right, the dog-whistle references Carson made in the debate to Hillary Clinton following the “Alinksy model” and “taking advantage of the useful idiots” might seem like gibberish, for instance, but they are part of a familiar litany on the hard right, where Obama and the Clintons are seen as thinly disguised socialist revolutionaries. The same goes for Carson’s argument that the tax code should be based on the Biblical ideal of tithing (conflating religion with secular policy making)—and his waving aside of concerns about torture as “political correctness.”
The key to Carson’s rise if that he’s finding a niche for himself as both an anti-Trump and an anti-Obama. For Republicans who see Obama and social movements like Black Lives Matter as encouraging social breakdown and divisiveness, Carson presents himself as a reassuring model of racial reconciliation, a black man who eschews bitterness and can succeed without raising his voice about racism. “I think the bully pulpit is a wonderful place to start healing that divide,” Carson said at the first debate. “You know, we have the purveyors of hatred who take every single incident between people of two races and try to make a race war out of it, and drive wedges into people. And this does not need to be done.”
Carson is a paradoxical figure: a genial fanatic who combines extreme ideas with a comforting, trust-inducing persona. On a personal level he’s much more winning that Trump, but in policy terms no less frightening.
As we watch how Carson performs in tonight’s second debate, it’ll be essential to put aside all pre-existing ideas and remember that the candidates are speaking to a Republican audience, not the public at large. As we learned last month, onstage antics that might look outlandish or amateur-hour could be the key to winning. The Republican audience is as much a part of the drama as the candidates on stage, and we have to understand them as well as those aspiring to the White House. Carson, it seems, understands them very well.