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Ben Carson surges in polls — but remains a mystery on policy

A new poll shows, for the first time, Carson leading the field nationally for the Republican nomination.

Despite his preternaturally calm demeanor, Ben Carson has a habit of relying on extreme-sounding analogies to make his points.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The New York Times has a fresh poll out Tuesday showing, for the first time, Dr. Ben Carson leading the field nationally for the Republican nomination, with 26 percent of likely Republican primary voters, followed by Donald Trump at 22 percent. None of the other candidates are in double digits and it would be silly to attach any importance to the distance between third-place finisher in this poll, Marco Rubio at 8 percent, as opposed to fourth and fifth-place holders Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina, tied at 7.

It’s also the first national sample in months to show anyone other than Trump leading the field.

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I have come to despise the degree to which poll results drive the coverage and the campaign, but this is nonetheless interesting heading into Wednesday night’s Republican debate. I won’t speculate on how Trump and Carson will handle this, but I guarantee that Trump will be the faster talker of the two and will make little sense and that Carson will be both serene and truly radical.

Carson, for example, is not just pro-life on the abortion issue, but he is, as he says on his website, “unabashedly and entirely pro-life.” He does not believe in abortion during the first trimester, not even in the case of a pregnancy caused by rape or incest. As for an abortion that is necessary to save the life of the mother, he said on “Meet the Press” Sunday that “that’s an extraordinarily rare situation. But if in that very rare situation it occurred, I believe there’s room to discuss that.”

Extreme-sounding analogies

Despite his preternaturally calm demeanor, Carson has a habit of relying on extreme-sounding analogies to make his points. For example, in that same Sunday interview, he compared the current legal status of a first-trimester fetus to that of a slave in the days of legalized slavery, referring to the legalized power of the slaveowner to treat a slave any way he wanted. Again, the question was about a pregnant woman’s right to an abortion during the first trimester, which he absolutely opposes. He said:

“Think about this. During slavery — and I know that’s one of those words you’re not supposed to say, but I’m saying it. During slavery, a lot of the slave owners thought that they had the right to do whatever they wanted to that slave. Anything that they chose to do. And, you know, what if the abolitionist had said, you know, ‘I don’t believe in slavery. I think it’s wrong. But you guys do whatever you want to do?’ Where would we be?”

I assume it’s clear from the above what he’s driving at. And he obviously acknowledges that these kinds of analogies are controversial. (He has also called the Affordable Care Act a form of slavery.) 

But on the abortion/slavery analogy, he’s saying that there was a time when a slave’s life was valued so little that his master could kill him if he chose. We now view that as barbaric and are glad that the abolitionists campaigned against it. He thinks those who say no to elective abortion are waging a similar battle for the lives of the unborn, and one day we will view them as we now view abolitionists.

I take Carson to be completely sincere and open about his views at a level that compares with no one in the race for president other than Bernie Sanders. I’m not crazy about the currently fashionable word “authenticity” to refer to sincerity in a politician. But whatever it is, Carson has it. He does not tap dance on the issues. He does not triangulate.

Tax plan?

On the other hand, many of his policy views are extremely unformed as yet. In the issues section of his campaign website, he says:  “We need a fairer, simpler, and more equitable tax system. Our tax form should be able to be completed in less than 15 minutes. This will enable us to end the IRS as we know it.”

But that’s all. What’s his tax plan? He has said in interviews that he favored a flat tax: “You make $10 billion, you pay $1 billion. You make $10, you pay $1.” In one interview, he said he wants the plan to be revenue neutral, so the flat rate might have to start off around 15 percent. But he suggests it could quickly be lowered to 10 percent. But in the first Repub debate, he suggested the 10 percent is a plan from God, “because God’s a pretty fair guy.”

If Carson is the front-runner, he will — and definitely should — be pressed for more details and justification on such a plan. But here’s one hint to his thinking. He has said that a graduated income tax amounts to “socialism.” I understand what he means by that — in the sense that one might call anything that takes from the rich to help the poor is somewhat socialistic, but it makes hash out of the current understanding of the difference between what we have in the United States and “socialism” and it remains for Carson, in his new prominence as the poll leader, to explain what might be left of the “social safety net” if he has his way.