Presidential campaigns are largely about perception, and the 2016 race is no different. The aura of Donald Trump, the cold calculation of Hillary Clinton, the disheveled passion of Bernie Sanders all make presidential politics more an episode of masterpiece theater than a race for the White House. A presidential campaign’s ability to control its perception—among media and voters—is often as important as its ability to raise money or stay on message. Losing control of the manner in which the public views a candidate can devastate a campaign, especially if that candidate becomes a caricature of his or herself.
Ben Carson—in the wake of a rise in polls—runs the risk of becoming such a caricature candidate, slipping away into the annals of others who suffered the same fate. Ben Carson has previously struck gold, blending an outsider resume and skill set with a standard conservative message: God, tradition, and low taxes. But the new light shone on Dr. Carson, no stranger to speaking the outrageous, has brought with it added scrutiny of his words. At the same time, that media criticism has sparked a new exuberance by Carson for uttering the outlandish and, in turn, making his candidacy look just as ridiculous.
Theories about pyramids, stories about violent acts, and historic revision about the Framers have brought a week of unwanted attention to a candidate who has previously struggled to receive it. For once, all of the media coverage of offensive, nonsensical comments, heavy doses of media scrutiny, and an environment that induces head-scratching bewilderment are not the makings of Donald Trump. That level of attention is exactly what Carson needed to put the wind in his sails and overcome the S.S. Trump. Yet, the substance of the coverage he has received will likely wreck his ship.
At this point, unless Dr. Carson can cut through the growing media firestorm and begin to re-package his own rhetoric into something more palatable to mainstream Republican politics, he will join the most unwanted of ranks—the cartoonish also-rans. It’s hard to forget the forgotten: Michael Dukakis channeling his inner-Bullwinkle atop a military vehicle, Howard Dean howling his way into a political jeopardy, Dennis Kucinich seemingly sketched with a cartoonists pen before even announcing a White House run, or Herman Cain’s “ground-breaking” 9-9-9 plan that simply dug his own political grave. The list goes on. When crowds stop cheering and start laughing, a candidate is not long for a race.
Ben Carson’s insistent claim that he tried to stab a friend and bludgeon his own mother is among the most ridiculous moments in the history of any presidential campaign. This moment may finally reveal to Republican primary voters—and the rest of the nation—that Dr. Carson is not a serious White House contender. Or, at least, his recent claims could convince primary voters that other candidates are more appealing—though count me incorrect if I am underestimating the size of the GOP’s friend-stabbing caucus.
The past few weeks, tonight’s debate, and the next few weeks of media coverage may prove to be the end of Ben Carson’s candidacy. However, there is an irony among GOP frontrunners. As America watches Ben Carson squander political momentum and emerge as a caricature candidate, the candidate who could help him most is the one who began the campaign as cartoonish hyperbole incarnate: Donald Trump. As the 2016 race has worn on, Trump has transitioned from an over-the-top, walking punchline into a more mainstream, traditional, and less ridiculous candidate. And it has worked. For Mr. Trump, as more and more in the GOP see him shedding some of his brusque non-traditional exterior and demonstrating political strategy and organization, there has been a growing recognition that there is a non-trivial chance he could become the nominee.
In this odd presidential cycle, a well-accomplished neurosurgeon is begging America to believe he had a physically violent past, and the best path to political recovery is to take a lesson from the mainstream behaviors of Donald Trump. Perhaps tonight’s debate will pave the path to Carson’s political recovery, maybe it will seal his fate as a political has-been, or perhaps yet it will turn this campaign on its head in a completely unpredictable way. At this point, my money is on the latter.