Ben Carson, the pediatric neurosurgeon turned political sensation, will formally launch his improbable bid for the Republican presidential nomination Monday from the same streets of Detroit where his rags-to-riches story began six decades ago as a black child raised by a single mother in poverty.
The rising conservative star intends to embrace his perch as the political neophyte in the crowded field of White House contenders, running a campaign that challenges political and media conventions on everything from economic policy to racial relations, the latter a topic Republicans long have struggled to address on the big stage.
Mr. Carson plans to immediately shake up a race that so far has lacked much substantive policy talk by embracing specific policy prescriptions, including a proposed $2 trillion economic stimulus funded entirely by repatriated American profits overseas, a flat tax system for all Americans, and a plan to eliminate the U.S. budget deficit quickly and to eliminate U.S. debt within a decade.
“Nearly all the ills we face today — from unrest in the inner cities to our weakness on the foreign stage — stem in some way from a weak economy and weak leadership,” Mr. Carson said in an interview with The Washington Times that was brimming with optimism and confidence.
“I actually think we can unleash an economic renaissance in America that can erase the debt in seven years, if we have the courage to act to get government out of the way of success, out of our lives and out of our business.”
The 63-year-old first-time candidate is bracing for attacks by his opponents that his outlook is too rosy or oversimplified and his resume lacks the necessary governing experience.
He counters by saying he faced similar pessimism and doubts decades ago when he was confronted as a surgeon with twins conjoined at their head. He conducted the first-ever successful separation surgery, against the odds.
“Professional politicians can tell you what can’t be done. That is the problem with Washington today. But as a doctor who stood on his feet for 50-plus hours and saved two lives, and who has performed more than 15,000 surgeries on children — some deemed hopeless — I can only see what is possible when you apply yourself,” he said.
Mr. Carson plans to assemble an all-star team of corporate and economic experts after his announcement Monday to help him devise specific, detailed, goal-oriented plans to reshape and resize government, trim costs and create a more fair tax system.
“Politicians have golden calves, political conventions and cash constituencies that keep them from acting boldly. CEOs and corporate board members are judged only by results, and they know it only counts if you get the job done and create impact. That’s the culture we need in the White House,” he said.
He plans to dispense with platitudes, offering an agenda of specific policy prescriptions, starting with a $2 trillion economic stimulus fueled not by tax increases or debt, but rather by a tax holiday that encourages American companies to repatriate their offshore profits and invest in the U.S. economy.
He also wants to cut corporate tax rates significantly to make them competitive with other major economic powers and to create a simple, flatter personal income tax that eliminates all deductions and has a top rate of 10 to 15 percent, he said.
“Will Americans miss their home mortgage and charitable deductions? Sure. But they will have as much or more disposable income as the current system with far less complication and more opportunity to invest in economic growth, their retirement and their favorite charitable causes,” he said. “The tax code that today sits at more than 70,000 pages really ought to be only 10 pages. Most Americans will agree that makes sense.”
On education, he plans to scrap big-government solutions like No Child Left Behind and Common Core in favor of a smaller Education Department that distributes more block grants. He also wants to create a massive private charitable effort that funds a new era of school choice where students can go to private schools with the help of donated funds from philanthropists and companies, and where single moms can stay in school or get a job with the assurance of good daycare for their kids.
Mr. Carson thinks such an education and support system could eventually lead to term limits on welfare, or help end public assistance outright.
“The American dream ought not be limited to getting a pack of food stamps, a middling cell phone and a poverty-level check each month from Uncle Sam. It ought to return to the opportunity to become self reliant and successful because the economy is expanding and the ability to climb the economic ladder is real, not just a hollow promise,” he said.
On foreign policy, Mr. Carson embraces the Ronald Reagan vision of peace through strength, seeing in President Obama and some of his Republican rivals a reluctance to use military might and a failure to articulate a national interest in foreign policy.
He said he believes ground troops are necessary to win the war against the Islamic State and that drone strikes to incapacitate al-Qaeda and other terror groups and spinoffs around the world need to be stepped up.
“I don’t like war. But if you are facing an enemy whose goal is your annihilation, you need to annihilate them first,” he said. “It’s pretty simple.”
He lambasted Mr. Obama for making a “bad deal” with Iran that he says will only lead to greater risk for American allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia and launch a nuclear arms race in an already volatile Middle East. He insisted any deal with Iran must have strict, irrevocable verification procedures that ensure Tehran never gets a nuclear weapon.
“We have 40 years of history that tells us Iran can’t be trusted and that their intentions toward us, Israel and its Sunni neighbors are hostile,” he said. “A deal without teeth is no deal at all.”
Mr. Carson also criticized the administration for what he called America’s failure to engage Russia in a way that meets U.S. interests and assures allies in Europe of their security. He said NATO has become outdated and that he’d like to form a new military alliance that included greater participation and security for Eastern Europe countries threatened by what he called Mr. Putin’s “expansionist ambitions.”
While sounding hawkish at times, Mr. Carson also sharply rebuked the George W. Bush administration for waging a failed war in Iraq and drawing resources from the war on terror, saying he once told Mr. Bush in a private conversation that the Iraq mission would be foolhardy.
“There was no U.S. national interest in deposing Saddam Hussein or sending our troops on an undefined mission that cost lives, money, equipment and it did nothing but create further instability and give Iran a vacuum” to expand its power, he said.
Virtually unknown to most Americans outside his meteoric medical successes, Mr. Carson roared onto the political scene in 2013 when he confronted Mr. Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington for creating what he said was too much dependency on government and too little emphasis on liberty, personal responsibility and self-reliance.
His popularity soared with conservatives, with his books reaching best-seller status and groups across the nation clamoring for him to come speak to packed rooms.
Last year he retired from daily surgery, moved to Florida and changed his political affiliation from independent to Republican. He named Houston businessman Terry Giles to explore the possibility of him running for president and in March formed an official exploratory committee (Carson America) with the Federal Elections Commission.
While playing to packed rooms and halls, Mr. Carson has had a few stumbles with the media, which have seized on some of his off-the-cuff comments that compared current U.S. government tactics to Nazi Germany and suggested Obamacare was one of the worst things to happen to black Americans since slavery.
Rather than retreat or blame the media, Mr. Carson wrote a political essay expressing humility and telling voters he still had plenty to learn as a politician on the trail if he was to run for president.
“Though the learning curve is steep, I am doing everything I can to acquire more knowledge of critical issues and surround myself with capable and wise advisers as I consider this monumental step,” he wrote in a March 24 column in the Times.
He had been a Times columnist before announcing the formation of his presidential exploratory committee.
While absent government and political experience, Mr. Carson can draw from a rich personal biography, rising from the streets of Detroit, freeing himself from poverty and tempering a rich youthful temper thanks to the determination of his mother — a divorced single parent who insisted he read every day and not watch much TV.
Mr, Carson attended Yale University and then went on to medical school at the University of Michigan. By the age of 33, he had become the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical University, where in the early 1990s he garnered worldwide fame with a successful surgery that separated two baby boys joined at the head since birth.
Eventually, Mr. Carson would conduct several such risky surgeries across the globe and his expertise was demanded in some of the most challenging pediatric neurosurgeries of the last two decades.
His rise as a black child in poverty in Detroit to world-accomplished surgeon earned him the prestigious Horatio Alger award in 1994 and was celebrated in 2009 in a made-for-TV movie called “Gifted Hands.” He also was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008 from Mr. Bush. His formal portrait is scheduled to be unveiled this summer in the U.S. Portrait Gallery.
Likely to be the lone black candidate in the GOP presidential primaries, Mr. Carson has been comfortable talking about issues of race, decrying an epidemic of black-on-black crime in America and suggesting Mr. Obama has pursued a policy of pandering to minorities that has tried to substitute government subsidies for personal responsibility and opportunity.
When other GOP candidates were slow to react to the Baltimore police riots last week, Mr. Carson jumped into the fray by issuing a statement urging parents and grandparents in the city where he had worked for three decades to get their children under control.
And when a woman at a recent forum suggested it might be “sensitive” for him to talk about the issue of the Baltimore riots, Mr. Carson laughed.
“It’s not sensitive at all. I want to talk about it,” he said. “Because it is not about race. It’s a black community with a police department that reflects the community’s racial makeup. What happened in Baltimore is really about distrust in government power and frustration with an economic system that hasn’t worked for the black community.”
On the issue of government, Mr. Carson adamantly supports reining in the size of federal agencies and their spending and thinks warrantless surveillance is unnecessary.
“We can get a subpoena or warrant from a judge in a flash, at any time of day or night. So there is no reason why law enforcement should be allowed to skip the requirements of the 4th Amendment,” he said.