Ben Carson might well profit from his presidential campaign, but his conservative supporters have already lost. They have lost by putting their hopes (and their money) in the wrong places. They would still have lost even if Carson had had no flaws as either a candidate or a man. Carson is a flawed candidate—too flawed to win the next presidential election—but there is a larger problem with his candidacy: no one can bear the burden of expectation placed on him. No one can substitute for the weakness of conservative institutions, and no one person can prevent the slow defeat that conservatives face within our political culture. The irony is that even though Carson can't save conservatism, Carson's supporters could—if they would only realize that victory comes from them working together to reach out to our fellow (apolitical) Americans.
Michael Brendan Dougherty makes the prudential case against Carson the candidate as well as it can be made. His tax plans would be poisonous in the general election, he spouts off in ways that people who are not already his supporters find ludicrous, and his political organization more resembles a scheme to amass a post-election fundraising list than it does a campaign designed to win.
And yet. If Carson, along with all of the virtues he already possesses, had a better tax plan, Marco Rubio's golden tongue, and the campaign organization of Karl Rove's dreams, it would still not be enough. One can see why in the Politco hit story on Carson.
Among its many other problems, the Politico story claimed that the Carson campaign had admitted that his story of applying to West Point was “fabricated.” To get to that interpretation, Politico had to make so many tendentious misinterpretations of earlier Carson statements (and, as David Weigel pointed out, ignore longstanding Carson claims that he had never applied to West Point). The Politico story was more like something you would expect from a polemicist-gone-wrong, like Dinesh D'Souza writing about Barack Obama, than the work of a normal news agency.
Now pull back from the personalities for a second. Focus on the structure. You had a liberal-leaning news outlet picking its fight with a conservative presidential candidate. They botched much of the reporting, but they picked the ground. If you read or listen to conservative-leaning media, you think Carson lost his fight with Politico in an utter rout. If you watched “mainstream” media (as do a larger share of Americans than those who consume conservative media), you heard a vague story about Carson complaining of facing scrutiny.
There is a sense in which Carson personally won. The media attacks garnered sympathy for Carson among people who were already his supporters. He was able to fundraise off of the attacks. If nothing else, he will exit the presidential campaign with a larger donor list because of Politico's attempt to smear him.
But a fundraising win for Carson is not a win for Carson's supporters. Sometime in the next 4-9 months, the Carson campaign will be over. What will his donors have to show for their money? What of the hopes that have been invested in Carson?
It will be as if Carson had never been in the race. The liberal-leaning media will still be picking the ground on which campaigns are contested, and conservative candidates will still be the ones responding. Meanwhile, demography will continue to erode the center-right coalition. The audience for conservative-leaning media skews old. The voters we need to win the elections of the future do not and will not watch Fox News or listen to conservative talk radio. As years go by, an ever-larger fraction of Americans will only hear about the news from liberal-leaning outlets.
Those rising generations of Americans will determine who wins elections. Carson can't speak to them. Even if he were perfect, he would not have the institutions or the time to make a sufficient impression. Conservatives mock radical college professors and celebrities who pop off about politics, but those (sometimes ridiculous) lefties are actually making an effort to reach that vast muddle of Americans who don't already have firm political commitments. Their antics are only the most visible (partly because they are sometimes the most silly) examples of how liberal institutions influence people who think of themselves as basically apolitical.
We don't reach those apolitical people. The vast majority of the time, they don't hear from us. They hear about us from liberal-leaning outlets. Those liberal-leaning outlets determine the terms of debate and—if we are lucky—a spokesman for our causes will get (almost) equal time for a debate where the ground has been chosen by the opposition.
It is time to change the game. The money that has gone to Carson (who is simply not going to be president), could have gone to a campaign on broadcast and streaming media about late-term abortion and the radicalism of select pro-abortion politicians. It would have gotten people talking. Liberals (both liberal politicians and the allegedly objective journalists who provide cover for those politicians) would have fired back, but they would be responding to us for a change. If large numbers of people had seen the message first, it would be tougher for liberals in the media to distort the debate. It would be easier for politicians who are our allies to speak effectively about the issue, and they would find a more sympathetic audience.
The people who support Ben Carson are working together, but they are working together ineffectively. They are participating in a culture of mobilization. The problem is they are too few to win Carson the Republican nomination (much less the presidency.) They (we) need to form a culture of engagement with those people who do not agree with us (yet). That money that went to Ben Carson will not have converted much of anybody. If persuadable Americans saw—in the media they already consume—a strong and unfiltered message about the abortion radicalism of Obama and the national Democratic Party, that would leave a mark. The question is, can we learn to work together and reach out, or will we keep waiting for political saviors who cannot save us?
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.