Dr. Ben Carson came in third on the CPAC straw poll for president, making him the not-Paul not-Cruz winner. Not to sound flippant, but that's a significant position, since the top two spots were pretty much pre-ordained. Run through a mental list of all the folks Dr. Carson beat out for that bronze medal, and you can see why it matters, even if you don't place a huge amount of faith in straw polls this far out from the election.
The thing is, we're really not that far out from the election, not for any candidate who wants to get serious. In fact, the hour is growing late. Presidential campaigns are massive undertakings. Hopefully the 2012 race permanently shattered the illusion of an outsider sweeping in from nowhere, whirling across the ballroom floor to pick up the nomination, and gliding smoothly into the White House. It doesn't work that way. It will never work that way. Assembling money and support for a winning bid is serious business indeed. Even if the candidate has a skeleton-free closet and a natural gift for avoiding self-destructive mistakes on the campaign trail, the resources to sustain fifty-state campaigns in both primaries and the general election take years to assemble. Not even Mitt Romney did it right, and he got started very early in the game, bringing both personal wealth and formidable management skills to the task. (Let us not dwell on what happened to those formidable management skills when it came time to assemble his campaign apparatus. The important lesson here is that 2014 is actually very late in the game for anyone to lay the groundwork for a 2016 bid.)
So if Dr. Carson wants to play, it's time to start lining up pieces on his side of the board. His assets include a well-deserved reputation for great intelligence and compassion, plus a unique charisma. People just plain like the man, including people who don't entirely agree with him. His CPAC speech was a rambling affair in which he just wanted to get a few things off his chest (essentially the way he himself introduced his presentation.) The audience ate it up like candy, and responded with completely unforced wails of dismay when Carson noticed he was running out of time:
Every candidate wishes he had a bottle full of what Ben Carson brews every time he steps up to the podium. But natural charisma and intelligence aren't enough in politics. Issues and positions matter too, especially in the Republican Party, which - to both its credit, and frustration - is far more serious about its core issues than Democrats are. As long as money gets spent, taxes go up, and the government gets bigger, Democrats can hand out enough lollipops to keep their coalition together. Even their livelier internal disputes can be smoothed over a with a billion or two in promises. And the Left is very comfortable with concealing Party ideology to protect candidates with views that its electorate finds nominally unpalatable, such as the absurd fiction of the "pro-gun Democrat," or the all but extinct "pro-life Democrat," whose antics were grimly amusing back in the bygone Bart Stupak era.
Republican voters, on the other hand, allow for much more limited rhetorical flexibility with their most sensitive issues, especially gun control. And that's where Ben Carson runs into a bit of tough sledding, because he has expressed some sympathy for gun control efforts. This lead to a fair number of "nice man, but I could never vote for him for President" assessments from conservatives.
Carson hasn't actually said all that much on the topic until now. Most of the "deal breaker" response is based on his response when Glenn Beck asked if ownership of semi-automatic weapons should be permitted. Carson replied, "It depends on where you live. I think if you life in the midst of a lot of people, and I'm afraid that that semi-automatic weapon is going to fall into the hands of a crazy person, I would rather you not have it."
Now, we could spend all day parsing every word of this response, beginning with the depth of Dr. Carson's knowledge of "semi-automatic" weapons. (I could be wrong, but I don't get the impression he's big on hunting or shooting sports.) And he concluded by saying he'd rather people in urban areas not have such guns, not "and that's why I think they should be illegal, no matter what the Second Amendment says."
But it's not unfair to note that the Second Amendment is not a regional ordinance, and the right to keep and bear arms does not atrophy simply because one happens to live in Detroit rather than Montana. (And on that score, the police chief of Detroit has famously come out in support of citizens' right to defend themselves.) If Carson wants to run for office, he must realize that in hyper-regulated America, people reflexively assume that the President plans to make his personal preferences compulsory. When you say "I'd rather people not have them," everyone naturally assumes the "... so I'll make them illegal" conclusion.
And when it comes to gun control, everyone with proper reverence for the Second Amendment lives in fear of the Republican squish who will give it away. No matter how badly gun control has fared at the ballot box, we all know the prevalent political and media culture strongly favors it. Just as we view our Second Amendment rights as a crucial element of our independence, the Left thinks the right to keep and bear arms is an insult to the power and wisdom of their beloved super-State. You're supposed to do as you're told, and when you get in trouble, you're supposed to await rescue from the State and its operatives. The implication that the State probably can't save you, and can never stumble upon some magic formula for regulating crime out of existence, makes liberals very angry. They could get a lot done with the aid of a prominent, beloved Republican leader who came out in favor of their agenda.
So if Carson wants to run for President, he'll need to clear all this up. Interestingly enough, he has been taking steps to do so. On Monday, he declared himself opposed to gun registration, saying he "used to think they needed to be registered, but if you register them, they just come and find you and take your guns."
And by "they" he means "pretty sinister internal forces." He went on to address his earlier comments about the difference between urban and rural gun ownership, saying he would "never advocate anything to interfere with Second Amendment rights," affirming that "law-abiding American citizens absolutely should have gun rights."
He's spoken of his fidelity to the Constitution many times, so unless you're inclined to think his further thoughts are just elaborate posturing to conceal a deep gun-control agenda, it sounds like he came to exactly the realization I mentioned above: the need to separate what he thinks free people should discuss among themselves, and what sort of legislation he would be willing to support.
Personally, I'm a diehard Second Amendment absolutist who is extremely nervous around guns - I am quite willing to exhaust myself fighting for your right to keep and bear arms. Maybe Dr. Carson has similar personal reservations about firearms. But if he truly believes in the Second Amendment, and can capably articulate the ramifications of that belief, shouldn't that be good enough? My guess is that some will remain uneasy because they know how hard the dominant political and media culture will hit him on this issue, either during the campaign to trip him up, or after he gets elected to squeeze support from gun control from the new President. He'd best be ready to wrestle bears and wolves to protect our gun rights.