The problem with Ben Carson

Story highlights

  • Errol Louis: Ben Carson plays off his string of gaffes about Oregon shooting, Holocaust, etc. as un-PC plainspeak. But that's not what it is
  • He says to lead diverse country requires diplomatic skill, knowledge. Even conservatives question whether Carson has what it takes

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)A recent string of public gaffes by presidential candidate Ben Carson might be the kind of temporary run of bad luck that can happen to anybody. Or they might signal a more fundamental problem that could sink his campaign.

Errol Louis
Eyebrow-raising comments have been streaming from the retired neurosurgeon in recent weeks. He told a CBS News reporter in a show that aired Sunday that the world is near the end of days, an apocalyptic disaster that would make any presidential policies or actions irrelevant, to say the least (it bookends an earlier comment by Carson that he believes the universe was literally created over the course of six 24-hour days).
There's more: After the horrific massacre at an Oregon community college that killed nine innocent people, Carson said: "I would not just stand there and let him shoot me. I would say: 'Hey, guys, everybody attack him! He may shoot me, but he can't get us all.'"
    Carson's advice runs counter to the advice of the FBI, which says that during an active shooter incident people should run or hide -- and fight an attacker only as a last resort. More importantly, Carson admitted being unaware that Chris Mintz, an Army veteran, had indeed fought back, as Carson suggested -- and was shot seven times by the Oregon shooter (Mintz survived).
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    Carson also ruffled feathers during an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer when, in defense of gun ownership, he said "I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed."
    Carson's view is "historically inaccurate," said Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, explaining that "the small number of personal firearms available to Germany's Jews in 1938 could in no way have stopped the totalitarian power of the Nazi German state."
    Undeterred, Carson called the ADL's reading of history "total foolishness." But the exchange underscores just how difficult it is for nonpoliticians to master the nuances of mass communication -- not to mention the immense amount of historical, cultural and geopolitical information -- needed to successfully campaign for the presidency.
    Carson, like Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina, has enjoyed considerable political success in the polls so far simply by being a nonpolitician. Carson frequently makes a point of emphasizing that he simply speaks his mind, unencumbered by political correctness.
    The idea of plainspoken, unvarnished talk sounds great -- until you realize that leading a nation of more than 300 million people of every religion, race and ideology might require some diplomatic skill and a lot of knowledge. Carson's critics, including many conservatives, are starting to question whether he knows enough of the right stuff to run a credible campaign.
    In the first televised Republican debate of the season, questioner Megyn Kelly of Fox News ticked off a number of blunders to Carson, pointing out: "You've suggested that the Baltic States are not a part of NATO, just months ago you were unfamiliar with the major political parties and government in Israel, and domestically, you thought Alan Greenspan had been treasury secretary instead of federal reserve chair. Aren't these basic mistakes, and don't they raise legitimate questions about whether you are ready to be president?"
    Excellent question. Carson's response that night -- "the thing that is probably most important is having a brain, and to be able to figure things out and learn things very rapidly" -- isn't a real answer but a promise to study hard and do better.
    That, to some conservatives, isn't good enough.
    Neil Stevens of RedState, the conservative website, slams Carson for serving as a longtime spokesman for a controversial nutritional supplement firm called Mannatech. "I can't imagine considering anyone promoting this stuff being fit to be President of the United States," writes Stevens.
    Ed Morrissey of HotAir, another conservative website, chastised Carson for a gaffe earlier this year in which he cited the incidence of homosexual prison sex as evidence that sexual orientation is a matter of personal choice rather than a civil right that deserves legal protection. "If Dr. Carson wants to compete at the highest level, he'll need to either learn the issues a lot better or learn how to parry the obvious media attempts to make him look like a nut from the fringe," wrote Morrissey.
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    Right-wing talk-show host Glenn Beck called Carson's prison comment "the dumbest thing I've ever heard." Conservative columnist S.E. Cupp, a CNN contributor, concluded that Carson is "embarrassing."
    "Conservatives have a dangerous habit of excusing ignorance or offensive comments so long as they come from someone attacking liberal elites," writes Jennifer Rubin in the Right Turn, a conservative-viewpoint column in the Washington Post, concluding that Carson is "entirely unfit for the presidency, seemingly oblivious to basic historical facts, constitutional concepts and world events."
    It's one thing when left-leaning pundits at Salon or the Nation slam Carson, as they frequently do. But when conservative voices line up against the good doctor, as they seem to be doing frequently, he'll have to decide whether it's time to be less of a truth-teller and more of a serious, thoughtful, well-briefed and fully prepared candidate for the highest office in the land.