Monday, November 9, 2015

How Badly Damaged Is Carson?

If you have been following the (strange) tale of Dr. Ben Carson's life-story under question, you could be forgiven for having gotten lost on some of the stranger twists and turns that it has taken. One thing is very clear: the process is hostile. The attackers, however, are not just liberal journalists (which is the narrative) but also include The Wall Street Journal and several conservative bloggers who were discomfited with his story around Mannatech (the supplement company he shilled for).

Where Are We Now?

To The Omnivore's eye, there are several points of contention. These are:

  • The West Point Story: Carson says (maybe) he got a full scholarship to West Point. West Point says one was not offered (no record). Carson says it was a verbal offer from Westmoreland. Records suggest Westmoreland wasn't where Carson says he was at the time the story happened. This was decades ago, though.
  • The Most Honest Student: Carson spins a story about a teacher hoaxing a class when he was at school. He gets a 10-dollar prize for being the most honest student. The class doesn't seem to have existed. The school paper, however shows there was a hoax of the kind he describes. Was he actually there?
  • Mannetech: Carson says he had no relationship with the dodgy supplement company he shilled for. He did though--clearly--but he makes the point that it was through an intermediary so technically maybe he's correct? He says they misused his name--but it sure looks like he agreed to it. Compensation is fuzzy.
  • Who Is Doing The Stabbing? Carson says he stabbed a kid. CNN can't find proof. Carson says it was actually a family member. No one is sure--reports suggest Carson wasn't the stabby type.

The Omnivore's Assessment

The Omnivore thinks that there are three very separate problems here. These are:
  1. People embellish. Hillary Clinton did it (sniper fire!). Brian Williams did it (didn't he claim to be a Navy SEAL or something?). Normal people do it all the time. Perhaps Carson has done it. Now, you can say that his whole deal is basically his life's story--but the major elements of that aren't in dispute. He was poor. He did go to Yale (unlike Obama, there are records!). Those conjoined twins didn't separate themselves. If he made up some glurge for his book, is that really what we're fixated on? Well, if you felt that Williams should be fired and Hillary disqualified for their exaggerations, The Omnivore is totes sure that you can unconvincingly explain how Carson is totally different.
  2. The Narrative Is Poison, Though. Right now the blood is in both sides of the water (liberal and conservative). Carson's attempts to explain things are overshadowed by (a) some clumsy messaging and (b) a drip-drip-drip effect that probably seems real familiar to Hillary. These are both dangerous to Carson. The campaign is playing defense and the number of stories out there mean that even well intentioned people will come away with incomplete views. In other words, this is a real problem whatever the final disposition.
  3. Mannetech might well be real. While it's probably not a total con-job, it seems likely Carson was more involved than he said at the debates. As this gets hashed out, it's going to color everything else. You can't say "Okay, I did exaggerate about the exam--but I'm totally NOT lying about the pyramid scam." You also can't very well do vice versa. This is the one conservatives have latched on to so it will carry the most weight.
  4. Seventh Day Adventist. As the scrutiny part of the cycle ramps up, Carson's religion is going to cast a shadow. As The Omnivore has said, the problem with the pyramids isn't policy--it's perception. Romney firewalled his Mormonism pretty well--maybe too well--but Carson cannot do that with his religion. It's too central to his message. So far as The Omnivore can tell, there is nothing too bad in the 7th Day Adventist religious constellation--but that won't make it any more palatable for people who are afraid Carson is a religious nut job.

The Net-Net

This could not be coming at a worse time for Carson: he leads the polls (at least some) and the next GOP Debate is a 'friendly' Fox News debate in 2 days. This material will be fresh and seems likely to come up. Trump senses weakness. People will be watching: he needs to thread a delicate needle to come through this unscathed and his political instincts have simply not looked that strong.

The biggest fear, however, (for the GOPe) is that unlike Herman Cain, Carson may well retain a core of his followers--he could win in Iowa--regardless of the scandals. If Carson is way too badly damaged to win--but holds on to a 10-15% share of delegates that's kind of a worst-case scenario.  This could lead the people running the debate to conclude that it is best to gun him down early. The debate should prove interesting--its aftermath, even more so.

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