The day after the CNBC broadcast of the third Republican Party candidates’ debate, the Wall Street Journal and NBC conducted a series of polls to take the voters’ temperature across the partisan field. Looking at both major parties, the poll demonstrated that Democratic respondents became less enamored of Bernie Sanders, and more favorable to Hillary Clinton (except in New England, especially New Hampshire, which in February will host the second state Democratic primary). A blog article published on WSJ‘s website attributes much of Clinton’s resurgence to her success in shrugging off the Benghazi committee attacks. Among Republicans, numbers showed a sudden spiking of support for Ben Carson, and a noticeable loss of support for Trump, with Carson now the front-runner of the moment. The polls further demonstrated that, were Clinton to have run at the time of the polls against a Republican opponent, only Carson could potentially have taken the election (although both Clinton and Carson had the same rating: 47% of the respondents). All other Republicans would have lost the popular vote to Clinton (although these numbers leave aside the question of state electoral votes that would have actually decided the question). Trump was, of the potential opponents posed against Clinton, the most likely to lose to Clinton. Rubio and Bush both lose in a popular race, but by less of a margin than Trump. So, for the moment, Ben Carson is the new golden child of the Republican clown car, running neck and neck with Clinton.
At the CNBC debate, Carson was soft-spoken and said little about his platform (and, indeed, the questioning was often more aimed at candidates’ personal histories and views, rather than being truly centered around potential policies). One might be tempted to think that his quiescence bespoke more on the debate procedures than on his own thoughts about how the nation should move forward. However, his campaign website says little more about his positions on major national issues than what he was able to articulate at the debate. Carson remains a man whose thoughts, if any, on issues of substance remain known only to himself. The position statements on his website, such as they are, are tuned not to the voter who wants actual answers, but to the voter who wants simple, unsupported platitudes.
Carson lists ten issues of importance to him (and presumably to those choosing to support him): opposition to abortion, passing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, de-federalizing government controls on public education, keeping the Guantanamo detention facility open, replacing the ACA with health savings accounts, using the power of government to protect religion, maintaining strength against Russia, preventing further work on gun control, supporting Israel, and simplifying the federal tax code. Carson avoids discussion of any kind about the economy and jobs, about peace and security in the Middle East (other than our need to support Israel), about climate change, about banking reform, about energy policy, about law enforcement and incarceration, or about any other substantive national issue. His issue statements, such as they are, pose few actual policy suggestions and indicate a childishly simplistic ideation (to use that word loosely) of modern political realities.
For example, rather than indicate that he himself would cut any spending, he merely calls for the ratification of a constitutional amendment mandating the balancing of a budget (he is unsurprisingly short of actual details of how that would work). His education policy is limited solely to de-federalizing government oversight over public education; he avoids any discussion of higher education, or of actual educational goals beyond making education more subject to local controls. Yet, reinforcing the modern American conservative contradiction between wanting less government in some areas but desiring more government in others, Carson advocates (again without any specifics) using the powers of government to “jealously protect” religious practices. And finally, he seems to agree with Carly Fiorina’s hope to simplify the tax code as the solution to American fiscal issues.
On foreign issues, Carson’s website is virtually silent. Carson does see Russia as a rising threat, and that opposition must be led by America “from a position of strength,” and of course he fails to identify any mistakes made by Obama’s administration or anything he would do differently. He also neglects to consider any other forces of opposition (such as ISIL, Iran, Al Qaeda, North Korea, China, etc.), or any allies or other forces with which we should pursue relations, beyond the state of Israel. There, too, while advocating the continuing support of Israel (an issue never actually in question), Carson neglects to state what his administration would do differently from the current one, past administrations, or those of any of the other prospective candidates of either party.
This is the sole website presence of “Ben on the Issues” (as his website pretends to portray), and having read it, the reader is challenged to find a single thing a Carson administration would do about most of these issues. We learn simply, and vaguely, that Carson seems to oppose using the government to provide basic social supports, but is eager to see religious practice protected by government power. He wants a balanced budget, but does not want to have to do it himself. He doesn’t have a better idea on how to improve the revenue stream other than by simplifying the tax code to something that would fit on a cereal box. And he has no ideas of any kind as to how to pursue American interests abroad. Yet this very ambiguity, as well as his sanctification of unborn life and his use of the government to protect religion, are tuned to the low-information voter who feels entitled and threatened by a modern, complex, tolerant society that expects them to act like adults. While Carson speaks less to the angry (who are, the WSJ/NBC polls indicate, more defiantly pro-Trump than Carson’s supporters are pro-Carson), Carson is the “bleed-through” candidate best positioned to benefit from the inevitable weariness of conservatives with the Trump “comic-book candidacy.”
While it is far too early to predict that the ultimate race will be one between Clinton and Carson, the current polling demonstrates that Clinton can potentially gain yardage through a clear, but simple, articulation of actual policy proposals and a greater diversity of issues capability and relevance. Such yardage will never attract the low-information voter; but those voters are harder to move from party to party. The 2016 race will have to be fought and won, and can at the moment be won, on more intellectual grounds.