The dark horses of 2016


The best advice I ever got about running for office came from Faye Johnson, a fierce Democratic warrior and former Boulder County Democratic Party chair. It consisted of exactly three words: “Make no assumptions.”

Johnson’s dictim should be made the official mantra of the 2016 presidential campaign cycle.

Polls and pundits have been making all sorts of assumptions about the 2016 cycle: That Hillary Clinton is an oddson bet to be the Democrat if she chooses to run, that if Elizabeth Warren were the candidate, she would run like a latter-day George McGovern (but without McGovern’s Midwestern nice) and with similar results, that the most electable Republicans are Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush, that if Ted Cruz were the candidate he would run like a latter-day Barry Goldwater and with similar results, and so on.

But behind these assumptions is a more fundamental one that is tacitly held by most Democratic and Republican politicos alike: That given the under-performance of the Obama administration, there is no chance that a dark horse outsider will come out of nowhere, turn the prevailing political paradigms upside down, grab a major party nomination, and sweep into the White House — like Obama did. It is almost universally assumed that this won’t happen in 2016.

But make no assumptions. There are two potential candidates, one in each party, who could do just that.

One is Ben Carson. The other is James Webb.

Carson, the Republican, is a neurosurgeon. Until his retirement last year, he was head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Among other accomplishments, he pioneered the separation of Siamese twins joined at the head whose separation until then had been considered impossible. In Medal of Freedom. 2008 he was awarded the Presidential He is black. He grew up in Detroit. single mom, Sonya, who worked multi- He and his brother were raised by a ple jobs, mostly as a domestic, and who fiercely rejected the possibility of her sons falling into the cycle of black failure.

In order to prevent it, she insisted that each of them read two books a week — and write a book report for her to prove that they had read their books. The strategy worked, and Carson became a ferocious reader, who went from one of the poorest students in his school to one of the brightest. He went on to get a Bachelor of Arts from Yale and an MD degree from the University of Michigan. His brother became an aerospace engineer. It was only years later that he discovered that his mother, whose formal education stopped at the third grade, could barely read their book reports.

A deeply religious man who is as plain spoken as he is soft-spoken, Carson attracted national attention politically when he gave the keynote speech at the national prayer breakfast in 2013 and, with Obama and Biden sitting next to him, spoke truth to power. His speech triggered a draft Carson movement. Since then he has been speaking at major conservative forums, winning straw polls and finishing high in some national polls as well.

Webb is a highly decorated Marine Vietnam combat veteran, a former Secretary of the Navy (in the Reagan Administration), and a former Democratic U.S. Senator from Virginia. He won his seat after changing his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat and defeating an incumbent Republican Senator (George Allen) who was being talked up as a presidential contender.

His accomplishments in the Senate include sponsorship of the Post 9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, which gave Iraq- and Afghanistan-era vets the same benefits World War II vets got under the GI Bill. He also sponsored a bill to create a blue ribbon commission to reevaluate the criminal justice system and drug policy of the United States and make recommendations for reform. Webb’s term expired in 2012. He chose not to seek reelection.

Despite his military background, Webb relentlessly attacked the Bush administration for invading Iraq, refusing to shake hands with Bush after he was elected to the Senate.

It’s easy to assume that a political neophyte like Carson, who has never run for any office before, won’t be able to put together a viable campaign organization, but the draft Carson committee has raised more than $11 million so far (which is more than Hillary has raised), and it has county chairs in every one of Iowa’s 99 counties.

Carson says he’ll decide whether or not to run by May 1.

Anyone who thinks Webb is too conservative for the Democratic Party’s left wing should review some of the op-ed pieces he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in the early ’80s. They are, if anything, more populist than anything Warren has said or written.

Webb formed an exploratory committee about a month ago. If he runs, he will challenge Hillary for the nomination not from the right but from the left.

One of the more intriguing things about Carson and Webb is that they have a lot in common. Both have compelling personal stories. Both are the authors of multiple books, including some best-sellers. Both are independent thinkers who have no use for political correctness.

Both of them are solution-oriented. Both are hard-asses on illegal immigration. Both view party affiliation as not much more than a flag of convenience.

Carson was an independent until two months ago. Webb didn’t become a Democrat until he contemplated running for the Senate.

Both offer something their parties badly need. Republicans know they have to reconnect with blacks. Democrats know they have to reconnect with working class whites. Both of them inspire passionate loyalty among their followers.

The Atlantic once described Webb as having two qualities that have become rare in Washington — a conscience and a spine. That pretty well describes Carson too.

In fact, they would nicely complement each other if they were on the same ticket.

If they were both to be kicked to the curb by their respective parties, might they get together and run a third party campaign? Probably not, but I wouldn’t make any assumptions.


This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.