Plunging in the polls amid the presidential race’s renewed focused on foreign policy, Dr. Ben Carson on Wednesday tried to change the subject.
Carson rolled out a health care plan, both online and at an event in Michigan on Wednesday afternoon, and the plan's launch underscores some of the candidate's crucial weaknesses: He’s tackling an issue on which few are focused while the rest of the nation is embroiled in a debate about terrorism and national security in which Carson has struggled to find firm ground.
As a presidential candidate, Carson has fumbled foreign policy questions, mixing up which nations are in NATO and and falsely stating that China is militarily involved in Syria. After November's Paris attacks, the Republican couldn’t answer a question posed by a reporter at a press conference in Nevada on whether NATO’s Article 5 should be invoked, saying, “I’m not sure,” after a long pause. Asked three times on another news program, he failed to name a single ally or world leader he’d draw into a coalition to fight the Islamic State.
His polling has suffered for it: He’s down to the bottom of the pack in New Hampshire, ranking at just 5% in the latest CNN/WMUR poll; in Iowa, a key early-voting state for the religious and socially conservative Carson to secure support in, he’s down to fourth place, with 13% of voters’ support.
It’s a shift the campaign seems keenly aware of: “While Iowa is a priority, it’s not the only place where we have substantial traction,” Communications Director Doug Watts told MSNBC on Wednesday.
But polls show Carson’s support eroding across the country. From a late October NBC News/Wall Street Journal high with 29% of the nation’s Republican or Republican-leaning voters, Carson’s down to 10% in the Suffolk/USA Today national poll that was released Wednesday.
“Well, basically, people feel that I don’t have foreign policy experience and I understand why that would be the case because they listen to the narrative that only politicians can fix this,” Carson said Monday of his polling drop, arguing that he's made more life-and-death decisions as a surgeon than politicians.
It’s clear Carson is working to change the narrative on foreign policy, too. He launched a surprise trip to Jordan to visit a Syrian refugee camp over Thanksgiving, but faltered days later when he delivered a stilted speech on Jewish history to a group of top Jewish donors — during which he repeatedly mispronounced “Hamas,” the name of a Palestinian group considered by the U.S. to be a terrorist organization, as "hummus." And on Tuesday, the campaign rolled out a list of foreign policy advisors, touting the former chief of staff to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, George Birnbaum and a handful of generals. His stump speech now zeroes in more on foreign policy, as well.
While Carson still draws a crowd at his events on the campaign trail, the lines are shorter and the energy diminished – a strong contrast to Carson’s book tour, which had fans driving and waiting for hours just to see the establishment outsider for a moment or two as he signed their books. It’s perhaps because Carson shines best when he’s talking about his incredible personal tale, journeying from being raised by an illiterate, single mom in the inner city of Detroit to become a renowned international surgeon.
But that narrative, too, has taken a beating in the race, as journalists struggled to corroborate huge chunks of his personal tale and a storied violent outburst that Carson says helped him find religion was mocked by Donald Trump on the campaign trail.
On health care, he's playing to his strengths. The renowned pediatric neurosurgeon spent decades in the health care industry, and it was his bold criticism of Obamacare in front of President Obama that launched him into the political world in 2013.
It’s clear that Carson hopes to draw the conversation back to his storied career and the kind of personal choices he's made a career in politics advocating for.
“My plan puts faith in Americans themselves, not the federal government, to make the best choices for themselves and their families,” Carson writes in the plan.
He proposes raising the Medicare eligibility age to 70, overhauling Medicaid, and repealing Obamacare. He promises big savings and better coverage, but offers few details or estimates of how this would work.
The plan relies heavily on tax-sheltered health savings accounts designed to provide more choice to consumers, something Carson argues Obamacare reduces.