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The Herman Cain Effect

On Wednesday, I had the chance to hear Dr. Benjamin Carson speak at the Van Wezel in Sarasota. Carson, a prominent neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins, made a national stir recently when he broke etiquette and broached the subject of politics while speaking at the White House Prayer Breakfast. The doctor's blunt nature and the fact that he was being critical of the President as he sat two seats away, made Carson an immediate hit with Fox News and right wing radio. Soon, based on little more than a few statements on back-of-the-napkin type policy ideas, the conservative base began calling for a presidential run.

I couldn't help but get the sense that Dr. Carson being an African American had a great deal to do with their enthusiastic reception of otherwise standard conservative dogma. Why is it that rich, older, white Republicans get so excited when they hear a black person agreeing with them that the system in which both of them have so greatly prospered, is somehow rigged against them, in favor of the poor?

Dr. Carson's speech in Sarasota was not focused so much on politics, as his compelling personal bio, though he did mention the prayer breakfast and tied in most of the policy points he had presented in that speech. The doctor has a compelling Horatio Alger-like story of rags to riches success, in which he overcame a poverty-stricken childhood, and what he described as an "anger problem," as well as poor grades, to become a world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon. Carson says that his illiterate mother worked three jobs in order to stay off of a welfare system that "even with a 3rd grade education, she could see that people who went on never came off."

He described discovering his love of medicine very early, saying that because of his fascination with all things medical, he didn't even mind the hours they had to endure waiting for what he says was state-sponsored medical treatment. Apparently, even though he said his mother worked three jobs in the wealthiest nation on Earth, the family couldn't manage such essentials without the sort of assistance he otherwise seems to loathe. He also apparently didn't seem to get that the free clinic itself was a form of welfare.

Carson described several pivotal moments in his life including a somewhat odd story where he attempted to stab someone, which was only foiled when the knife he was wielding hit the fellow's belt buckle rather his abdomen, where he'd been aiming. Eventually, Carson says he got his act together and decided to buckle down in school, despite peer pressure against being "a nerd," and said he was even voted by classmates, most-likely to succeed.

Dr. Carson credits his development to his mother's dogged insistence from an early age that he excel academically, saying she used to make him read two books each week and then submit written book reports that he didn't know she couldn't read, later telling how she eventually overcame her illiteracy, got both a GED and college degree, and was even awarded an honorary doctorate. What followed for him was without a doubt an amazing career story.

Carson pioneered techniques in some of the most complex areas of neurosurgery and made history in 1987, when he became the first surgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins who had been attached at the back of the head. In 2008, he was awarded the National Medal of Freedom by President Bush, the highest honor bestowed on a civilian in the United States. Clearly, he is a very intelligent and highly-skilled person with extraordinary talent in a field that is inherently one of the most difficult to even enter, let alone stand out in.

A charming speaker, Dr. Carson delivered a positive message and raised interesting points about our overly-PC society and ways in which it inhibits the sort of frank discussion needed of the rigorous debate that often precludes the discovery of solutions. Through his foundation, he is providing young students with a model that rewards excellence in education, the same way it is disproportionately rewarded in sports and entertainment. But it was the political hot buttons that received the biggest responses from the crowd on Wednesday.

Carson has promoted the flat tax with a simplified version of the same sort of bullet points that have surrounded the proposal for decades, adding that biblical references to tithing demonstrate that even God thinks proportional taxation is fair. On health care, Carson has suggested just giving everyone an HSA at birth and allowing them to make pre-tax contributions their whole life, failing to explain how someone like his own mother, who worked three jobs and still had to be on public healthcare and who he claimed lacked a spare cent in her net pay after providing the bare essentials, would have managed to sock away enough of her meager earnings to fund such an account.

Dr. Carson is certainly just as free as anyone else to offer his thoughts on any subject he feels like addressing. What I find so interesting is despite the fact that there is nothing new or particularly advanced about the handful of political ideas he's proffered thus far, so many on the right are ready to anoint him as a presidential contender. It seems eerily reminiscent of the rise of Herman Cain, a largely unknown former pizza CEO and Atlanta talk radio host who was foisted onto the 2012 political stage on the back of a thinly-developed and widely panned 9-9-9 plan, which was similarly vague and equally porous. But Republicans told me time and again that he was the answer to their Obama problem because, finally, no one could say they were racist, were they able to nominate a black man who believed everything they did.

After the 2012 election, conservatives had to confront the statistical realities facing the Republican Party. Analysts and pollsters spoke of "demographic problems," noting that the voting metrics in which Republican candidates fared the worst, were also the ones that were growing quickest; while the one in which they did best (white males over 40) was shrinking. Clearly, that didn't bode well for their party's future. But while several prominent party members made vague statements about the need to "broaden the tent" and change the "tone of the message," little attention seems to have been paid to the message itself and why it is failing to resonate outside of the class of Americans who have, as a demographic, fared best throughout the nation's history.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.


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