By some credible metrics, Ben Carson is the current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. Recent polling shows him leading not only at the national level, but also in the first caucus state.
The problem – one of them, anyway – is that Carson also seems manifestly unqualified to be president of the United States. He’s never sought or held elected office; he has no working understanding of government; and he’s never led anything larger than a medical department.
The retired right-wing neurosurgeon is aware of these concerns and, late last week, offered a striking response: “It is important to remember that amateurs built the Ark and it was the professionals that built the Titanic.”
It was unclear whether Carson was kidding. It’s entirely possible that the Republican candidate believes, sincerely, that Noah’s Ark was an actual, real-world structure that housed thousands of pairs of animals. He might even genuinely believe that the boat’s supposed existence is evidence of his presidential qualifications.
But Vox’s Timothy B. Lee had a good piece the other day noting the flaw in Carson’s reasoning.
[N]o one would want an amateur doctor to do brain surgery on them – they’d want a highly trained professional like Ben Carson. Most jobs doing scientific research require a PhD, because it takes years of study to master the scientific state of the art. And it’s a good thing that, generally speaking, we expect politicians to have some previous experience in government – or related fields – before elevating them to the highest office in the land. […]Carson, by contrast, seems to relish his standing not only as an outsider but as a non-expert in public policy. He seems to believe that he’d be able to govern by applying “common sense” to the nation’s problems. But this is nonsense. The presidency is a hard and complex job. Electing a true amateur to the White House makes as little sense as having an amateur doctor do brain surgery.
At its root, the problem is what Paul Waldman describes as the “outsider delusion.”
In nearly all recent polling, the two powerhouses in the race for the GOP nomination, at least for now, are Carson and Donald Trump, who combine for exactly zero days in public service. There’s a perception, however, that this is a selling point – “insiders” are incompetent and cowardly bureaucrats, while “outsiders” have a unique ability to harness common sense and get things done by bringing a fresh perspective that will shake up a stagnant status quo.
There’s no reason in the world to believe this is true. From a Waldman piece in the Washington Post two months ago:
On the Republican side … the two leading outsiders, Trump and Carson, have nothing so specific in mind. They argue that they’ll get things done, Trump through the force of his will, and Carson because he is untainted by politics. Ask either one of them about a specific policy issue, and it quickly becomes clear that when it comes to the issues a president deals with, they’re utter ignoramuses, which is perhaps understandable, if less than reassuring. […]If you’re a voter attracted to these outsiders, you’d do well to ask yourself: What, precisely, will an outsider do as president that an insider wouldn’t? Would they pursue a fundamentally different set of policies?
The answer, of course, is probably not. But therein lies the point: amateurs don’t know what they don’t know. It’s not that Trump and Carson are insincere; rather, they simply lack the necessary understanding to appreciate the complexity of the office they’re unqualified to hold.