For the first GOP presidential nomination debate, I tweeted my assessment of the candidates’ performance from strongest to weakest. I came to this conclusion by judging which candidates best helped themselves. Because each candidate faces different challenges, what each must do to raise his profile varies. My assessment of the best performers and my rationale follows:
4th Place: Dr. Ben Carson
Initially, I reserved skepticism for Dr. Carson: he has never held political office, he’s gaffe prone, and he lacks policy knowledge. Carson’s appeal rests on the cult of personality–much like President Barack Obama. As a symbol, Carson represents a fine example of the best populists in the party–intelligent, religious, feisty, and gentle. While I doubt Carson will win the nomination, his performance in the first debate demonstrated his wide appeal. For Dr. Carson to have best helped his campaign, he needed to stand out on substance, introduce himself and avoid gaffes.
Dr. Carson introduced himself very well, highlighting his professional accomplishments as a neurosurgeon, demonstrating his religious faith and offering a taste of his willingness to fight liberalism. Incredibly charming, even when decrying a perceived lack of attention, Carson delighted viewers with well-placed quips and a vivid picture of his conservative instincts.
There ends Carson’s achievements in the first nomination debate.
The soft-spoken doctor lacks dynamism, which is a problem all its own. Coupling that with aimless answers reminiscent of his announcement speech, and a complete lack of policy substance, spells disaster for a party that nominates him.
Megyn Kelly asks:
“Your critics say that your inexperience shows. 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. Aren’t these basic mistakes, and don’t they raise legitimate questions about whether you are ready to be president?”
This question encapsulates Carson’s greatest hurdle. Can his professional success, conservative stances, and skin color make up for his political unsophistication, or is Dr. Carson the latest iteration of Herman Cain?
His response, was not promising:
“We have a debate here tonight, and we will have an opportunity to explore those areas, and I’m looking very much forward to demonstrating that, in fact, the thing that is probably most important is having a brain…”
On waterboarding, Carson played coy. When asked if he would have used force against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Carson pivoted to anti-Obama talking points. On tax policy, he offered his version of the 9-9-9 Plan–the 10% tithe plan that, without further exposition, would disproportionately harm the poor.
“I’ve advocated a proportional tax system. You make $10 billion, you pay a billion. You make $10, you pay one. And everybody gets treated the same way.”
Does $1 billion mean the same to a billionaire as $1 to someone making only $10? Even flat tax proponents believe in a graduated flat tax, but getting into the weeds on Carson’s tax policy, such as it is, only exposes his greatest weakness–a great mind for neurosurgery, but not for public policy.
By my estimation, Dr. Carson performed better than many of the other candidates because the bar for him is set so low. For the most part, he met his expectations. What he needed to win the debate was for him to be something he’s not, a politico. His future in the conservative movement can be a bright one, but not as the nominee of this party, and not as president.