Finley: Ben Carson appeal escapes me

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

I don’t get Ben Carson.

I’ve been a conservative voter all my life. But nothing about the Detroit native and famed neurosurgeon speaks to my political values. In fact, nothing about Carson speaks to me at all.

Of the eight candidates who stood on the debate stage in Milwaukee last week, I found Carson the least compelling. He was the only one I couldn’t squint and see in the White House.

It’s not that there’s anything particularly offensive about Carson. Yes, he’s a little short on his constitutional schooling (i.e., no Muslim presidents) and says some goofy stuff (the pyramids were the biblical Joseph’s grain elevators). But that’s not as off-putting as the weird things Bernie Sanders says about property rights.

And if he told some whoppers in his books, call me when the serial lies of Hillary Clinton get equal scrutiny, or when Barack Obama’s book gets a similar vetting.

I just can’t find much about Carson to grab onto. He’s sort of a dud. Yet he continues to lead the Republican field, along with the nearly-as-baffling Donald Trump.

Although Trump, I do understand. A bit. Voters like him because he’ll say whatever outrageous thing pops into his head. They mistake his inappropriateness for authenticity.

And he’s got a slogan that resonates. It’s on his ball cap: Make America Great Again. Voters who have suffered through seven years of a president who seems offended by the idea of a great America rally to a guy whose swagger suggests a big, brawling leader. As a successful businessman, he has skills that might translate to the White House.

But Carson? He’s demure to the point of somnolence. At points during the debate, you could forget he was even there. He rarely broke in, and answered his questions in a dull, halting voice that could be read as dimness as easily as politeness.

Still, look at the polls. Carson maintains his advantage despite the lackluster debate performance, and despite the questions about his veracity.

The Carson fans I’ve talked with always mention character. They think he’s a good man. Fair enough. But character must come with competence to make a good president, and Carson has demonstrated little of the latter. He must be smart — he was one of the nation’s leading pediatric brain surgeons. And his genuine rags-to-riches story is inspiring. But it hasn’t translated into campaign dynamism.

It could be the religious right is coalescing around Carson. He is not shy about his faith.

But that doesn’t explain his strong showing in head-to-head match-ups with the Democratic contenders. In a recent Michigan poll, Carson tops Clinton 46-40 and Sanders 45-36. That may suggest something about the appeal of the Democratic offerings, but no other Republican does that well against the Democrats.

There’s a lot about this election cycle that defies logic. The self-destructive rush by Republicans to “outsiders” for one. That a socialist is setting the agenda in the Democratic campaign for another.

But the Ben Carson phenomenon is the strangest of them all.