In the future, everyone will be a Republican presidential candidate for 15 minutes. At this point, it’s really difficult to come to any other conclusion.
In the past week, famed neurosurgeon Ben Carson, controversial former CEO and failed Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, and Governor-turned-snake oil-pitchman Mike Huckabee, all declared their candidacies and were rewarded with interviews on the Sunday morning talk shows.
The sense among most viewers must have been, “Well, if these guys can do it, why not me?”
Carson turned up on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace and spent some time in the beginning of the discussion talking about his truly inspiring background. The son of a poor single mother in Detroit, he rose to become a world-famous pediatric neurosurgeon.
So far, so good. Then, he started talking about economic policy. Specifically, about his plan for a flat tax, under which everyone from a fast-food worker to a, well, famous neurosurgeon, would pay the exact same tax rate.
“I got that idea, quite frankly, from the Bible,” Carson said. He said the system would be “pretty darn fair if you ask me.”
Host Wallace, however, had some concerns. “But Doctor, here is the problem with a flat tax in the real world.”
Citing data from the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, Wallace pointed out that in order to raise the same amount of revenue that the federal government does now, the tax rate would have to be in the low-to-middle 20s. That means high earners would get an enormous tax break, and the poor would see a tremendous tax hike.
“Wrong,” said Carson, before Wallace had finished speaking. Then, after Wallace paused, he said, “I don’t agree with that assessment. Let me put it that way. Because I’ve been in contact with many economists and in fact, if you eliminate the loopholes and the deductions, then you are really talking about a rate somewhere between 10 and 15 percent.”
Wallace let pass the fact that a rate at the level Carson suggested, while still a hike for the poor, would be an even bigger gift to the wealthy, and said, “I’ve got to tell you, the outside experts we talk to said you’re talking in the 20s.”
“Let’s have a battle of the experts,” said Carson, apparently suggesting a debate between the Tax Policy Center and the economists Carson has himself “been in contact” with.
Wallace gamely tried to draw Carson out, and when it came to details about the program, the hand waving began. “This is part of an overall complex program because it also involves reorienting the way that we do things in government – making the government run more like a business than this great inefficient behemoth that we have now,” Carson said.
Over on NBC, running the government like a business was also a subject of discussion. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina showed up on Meet the Press, and host Chuck Todd got straight to one of the biggest challenges she faces as a candidate.
“We asked a number of [voters] in our NBC/Wall Street Journal poll and the idea of somebody without any political experience at all, any elective office experience at all, actually made nearly 70 percent of those we surveyed ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘have significant reservations,’” Todd said. “You obviously do not have a background in elective office. You believe that is something of an asset. Voters don’t see it that way. What do you say to them?”
Much like Carson, in harking back to other economists that he has spoken to personally, Fiorina rebutted the poll data by citing knowledge gained from voters she has spoken to personally.
“Well, I’ve spent a lot of time with voters in a lot of places and I think many, many voters are now looking for someone from outside the political class,” she said. “They believe that we need to challenge the political status quo of Washington.”
Todd went on to challenge Fiorina about her performance while CEO of Hewlett-Packard, which has been widely criticized. During her time there, she laid off 30,000 workers, and the stock tanked. The HP board eventually fired Fiorina.
She mounted a spirited defense of her tenure there, arguing that while the numbers look bad, she had managed the company through a very difficult era in the tech industry and that other companies hadn’t even survived.
Fiorina made a convincing case, but those who pay attention to CEO performance don’t cut her a lot slack, and her reputation as a well-compensated failure will be hard to shake. Fiorina’s tenure at HP is memorialized by her appearance on several “Worst CEOs Ever” lists. Portfolio magazine described her performance at HP this way:
“A consummate self-promoter, Fiorina was busy pontificating on the lecture circuit and posing for magazine covers while her company floundered. She paid herself handsome bonuses and perks while laying off thousands of employees to cut costs. The merger Fiorina orchestrated with Compaq in 2002 was widely seen as a failure. She was ousted in 2005.”
The worst performance of the day, however, went to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who met outgoing Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer on ground that didn’t exactly favor the candidate.
Schieffer quickly brought up Huckabee’s history of lending his name and reputation to dubious endorsement deals, focusing on the “Diabetes Solution Kit” he personally endorsed for an organization called Barton Publishing as recently as this February.
The Barton plan has been described as “controversial” by friendlier commentators and as “snake oil” by others, but Huckabee offers a full-throated endorsement. "Prescription drugs aren't going to cure you," Huckabee continues. "They're only going to keep you a loyal, pill-popping, finger-pricking, insulin-shooting customer, so big Pharma and the mainstream medical community can rake in over $100 billion a year annually.”
The Barton Publishing company’s claims have not, to be kind, been scientifically validated, and Schieffer asked Huckabee about his decision to endorse it.
“The particular plan you’re talking about is about the healthy eating, watching the kind of foods one takes in,” said the author of God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy. “And you know, I don’t have to defend everything I’ve ever done. I’m not doing those infomercials obviously now as a candidate for president. But if that’s the worst thing somebody can say to me is that I advocated for people who have diabetes to do something to reverse it and stop the incredible pain of that, then I’m going to be a heck of a good president.”
Huckabee might have been out of it at that point, except:
“Governor,” Schieffer said, “I have diabetes, and I agree with you most doctors will tell you, you have to lose weight, you have to have a nutritious diet, but you were also selling pills of some sort, were you not?”
That’s when the wheels came off for Huckabee. “No, no that’s a misnomer,” he said. “One of the elements of the plan was dietary supplements, but it’s not the fundamental thing. The fundamental thing is always as you and I both know, it’s exercise, its maintaining good eating habits, it’s maintaining sugar levels, it’s not eating a bunch of junk food.” Looking increasingly desperate, he said, “As somebody might say, it’s not rocket science, or as some might say, it ain’t rocket surgery. It’s really pretty simple but it does require some discipline.”
Even Ben Carson might be challenged by rocket surgery, but it doesn’t seem likely that many of the top tier Republican candidates in 2016 will be challenged by any of the candidates who announced this week.
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