Ben Carson, the former neuro surgeon who achieved international acclaim for his contribution to medicine and his up-by-the-bootstraps life story, has quietly climbed to the top tier of GOP presidential candidates with a low-key but solidly conservative platform.
As the only African-American running for president this year, Carson has spurred considerable interest among Republican conservatives with his free market economic views, sharp criticism of government social spending and strong conservative views on abortion, gay rights and foreign policy.
Carson drew kudos for his performance in the nationally televised August 6 GOP presidential debate in Ohio – especially for his parting comment suggesting that many in Washington function with half a brain. And over the weekend, Carson emerged as number two only to billionaire Donald Trump in the latest Fox News national presidential poll of Republican voters.
Trump continues to dominate the crowded, 17-member GOP field with 25 percent support nationally, while Carson is running second at 12 percent. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz rated third with 10 percent of the Republican vote and former Florida governor Jeb Bush garnered just nine percent while Wisconsin governor Scott Walker tied for fifth place with 9 percent of the vote.
Carson appears to be reveling in his newfound celebrity, especially after weathering mass resignations from his campaign earlier this year that suggested his inexperience in politics was showing.
But political celebrity often comes with increased scrutiny, and the former Johns Hopkins neuro-surgeon suddenly is being buffeted by criticism and concern.
Carson was stung recently by reports that he had participated years ago in a study that used fetal tissue, even as he joined with other Republicans in condemning a Planned Parenthood official discussing the donation of fetal tissue in secretly recorded videos. He denounced media reports of his study as “propaganda,” but sought to differentiate what he had done in using existing fetal tissue on slides for the study and actively obtaining fetal tissue as the result of an abortion.
Then last weekend, Carson was grilled by Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday for accusing President Obama of “anti-Semitism” for negotiating and strongly promoting a nuclear deal with Iran – one that Carson and other Republicans and some Democrats insist will only strengthen Iran’s hand in the coming decade to build a nuclear weapon that would threaten the existence of Israel.
When Wallace challenged Carson on his assertion, Carson responded that during a recent visit to Israel, he “couldn’t find a single person there who didn’t feel this administration had turned their backs on Israel.”
Carson also argued that the president’s speech included anti-Semitic language because “anything is anti-Semitic that is against the survival of a state that is surrounded by enemies and by people who want to destroy them . . . And to sort of ignore that and to act like everything is normal there and that these people are paranoid, I think that’s anti-Semitic.”
Carson also struggled to both explain and defend his 10 percent flat tax plan – one in which he said earners would pay “according to your ability” but that in fact would turn the progressive federal income tax system on its head. Flat tax plans have been kicking around Washington and conservative think tanks for years, but Carson said he got the idea from the Bible and the concept of tithing, in which the faithful routinely contribute a tenth of their income to the poor and needy.
“You make $10 billion a year, you pay a billion,” he explained to Wallace. “You make $10 a year, you pay one. You get the same rates. That's pretty darn fair if you ask me…. Now some people say poor people can't afford to pay that dollar,” Carson added. “That's very condescending. I can tell you that poor people have pride too. And they don't want to be just taken care of."
A dubious Wallace pointed out a serious flaw with the flat tax when applied to “the real world.” Citing a study by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, Wallace said that the government couldn’t raise as much in revenue as it does now unless the flat tax rate were higher than 20 percent – which would effectively raise the tax rate for many lower income wage earners while reducing the existing tax rate for upper income Americans.
"That's actually not -- I don't agree with that assessment," Carson replied. "Because I've been in contact with many economists. And in fact, if you eliminate the loopholes and the deductions then you're really talking about a rate somewhere between 10 and 15 percent."
Wallace didn’t appear convinced. "I've got to tell you that outside experts we talked to, you're talking in the 20s. For instance, you talked about low-income families. Not only don't they pay, they actually get an earned income tax credit. Now, you're going to have them paying 10 to 15 percent of whatever income they have or 20 percent if my experts are right."