WASHINGTON – Ben Carson got the chance he wanted to talk substance in the latest Republican debate. Be careful what you ask for.
In his turns at the microphone, the popular political neophyte bobbled more than a few facts, struggled for coherence at times and offered a nearly blank slate on what he’d do as president about the Islamic State, big banks and other leading issues of the day.
The economy-focused debate gave the eight candidates a platform to lay out their policy in more detail than before, and Carson was hardly alone in making some flubs. But for a candidate who was overshadowed by louder rivals in past debates and slammed the focus in recent days on his biography, the forum laid bare a largely details-to-come policy agenda.
On Syria and Iraq, Carson proposed both making Islamic State militants “look like losers” and destroying them, leaving unstated whether he would go after them with propaganda or ground troops. He inveighed against banking regulations while indicating he would head off another financial crisis with new, though unspecified, regulation. His flat tax ideas remain a concept with a few key elements, but a formal plan still to come.
At least to those drawn to his candidacy, “Carson communicated trustworthiness,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. “He communicated likability. He had greater difficulty communicating a command of the issues.”
A closer look at Carson’s answers to the five questions that came his way.
The Republican pack has those who would go after the Islamic State more directly than President Barack Obama, and those who shy away from more intervention. Then there is Carson, largely a mystery on how best to confront the threat and where — Iraq, Syria, both or beyond.
Early in the campaign, Carson spoke in favour of a U.S.-led combat role. In other settings, he’s called for the U.S. to continue its current limited engagements in the region and its assistance for Syrian insurgent forces — in effect endorsing Obama’s course even while criticizing it for being ineffective.
He also favours a no-fly zone in Syria, in general agreement with several GOP rivals and Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But the debate added little to those outlines. “I think in order to make them look like losers, we have to destroy their caliphate,” he said. And, “I’ve learned from talking to several generals” that taking control of energy resources now in ISIS hands outside of Anbar, Iraq, could be done “fairly easily.” He did not say who would challenge ISIS for that control or how.
“And then you move on from there,” he said.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
Carson was asked about possible inconsistencies in his life story. He said he had “no problem with being vetted. What I do have a problem with is being lied about.” He suggested that other candidates, “like people on the other side,” were getting easier treatment, singling out Clinton.
“We have to start treating people the same, and finding out what people really think and what they’re made of,” he said.
The idea that Clinton hasn’t been subjected to intense scrutiny is head-scratching. She spent 11 hours last month testifying about the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, in the latest of eight congressional investigations into the matter. Clinton’s use of a personal email account and server while secretary of state was uncovered by the mainstream media Carson criticizes for looking at his story.
Few figures in modern American politics have had their life story and career examined with such gusto as has the former first lady, ex-New York senator and two-time presidential candidate, dating back decades to the time of Whitewater and her doings at the Rose Law Firm in Arkansas.
Carson was questioned about his bare-bones plan to replace the current tax code with a flat tax of up to 15 per cent. While many of the details are still TBD, he did offer one additional nugget when he said he would provide some sort of “rebate” for poor people.
There remain unanswered questions about who would qualify for the rebate, what Carson would count as income, how he’d treat investment income and how he’d address corporate income, among other things.
“He was on the lean side” in providing details, said Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the nonpartisan Brookings Institution and Urban Institute.
Based on what’s known of Carson’s tax plan so far, Williams said, “we do know that people at the top of the income distribution would make out like bandits” and a substantial chunk of the population below them would pay more.
Carson aides say he will introduce a detailed tax-and-budget plan in coming weeks. He repeated Wednesday that he would do away with the most popular personal income tax deductions, those for mortgage interest and charitable contributions.
ABOUT THE BANKS
To a question about whether the nation’s biggest banks should be broken up, Carson called for “policies that don’t allow them to just enlarge at the expense of smaller entities.” He then launched into a critique of the “stampede of regulations” and said, “If we can get that out, it makes a big difference.” He finished the point by again speaking of new policies in the financial sector, seeming to endorse a regulatory solution while at the same time complaining about excessive rules.
Carson was asked whether he would raise the minimum wage and was definitive: “I would not raise it.”
“Every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases,” he said.
In fact, when the minimum wage rose in 1996 and 1997, unemployment fell. In June 2007, when the first of three annual minimum wage increases took effect, the unemployment rate held steady until the Great Recession began six months later.
On Wednesday, Carson said he’s open to a minimum wage increase after all, “if somebody can come up with a good explanation of why that should be done.”
Associated Press writers Stephen Ohlemacher, Christopher S. Rugaber and Josh Boak in Washington and Bill Barrow in Virginia contributed to this report.
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