One of the lasting legacies of the George W. Bush presidency is that it severely lowered the bar on what we expect the president to know. Bush and mainly his primary handler, Karl Rove, made it generally acceptable for the chief executive to be no smarter than the great unwashed he's governing. Worldly, smart people like John Kerry were caricatured as being effete dandies just because they could speak French or, you know, count higher than six. Bush and Rove, on the other hand, glamorized being a dilettante.
While we ought to demand that our presidents be significantly smarter than we are, the Bush years turned that ideal on its head. Smarties, the 2000s taught us, are threatening and out of touch with middle America. Case in point, I recall a story in which Bush was showing a German journalist around the Oval Office when they came upon the famous portrait of George Washington. Stopping at the painting, Bush gestured toward our first president as said, "That's George Washington, the first president, of course. The interesting thing about him is that I read three -- three or four books about him last year. Isn't that interesting?"
Yes, the most interesting thing Bush could repeat about George Washington is that he'd read three or four books (I highly doubt it was even one) about him.
Rewinding further to the 2000 election, there were countless instances when Bush couldn't name foreign leaders or repeat details of his own policy proposals without almost choking on his own tongue. Eight years later on the 2008 campaign, Sarah Palin made Bush look like a nuclear physicist. Bush won twice, and Sarah Palin has become a millionaire many times over, just because they're both hopeless dilettantes -- sorry, "plainspoken."
This year, we have arguably the nation's premiere pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. Ben Carson running for the GOP nomination. He's a brilliant, gifted surgeon and he seems like a good family man. But he's a political dilettante. Not only is he wrong on the issues (Obamacare is worse than slavery; the flat tax; homosexuality is a choice; people go to prison straight and come out gay; etc) but he's fumbled a series of answers on common knowledge topics.
Last month, Carson appeared on the otherwise friendly Hugh Hewitt show where he proceeded to embarrass himself by not knowing that the Baltic states were part of NATO, and by incorrectly stating that Islam began hundreds of years before Muhammad lived.
And on Wednesday, when asked about a possible Supreme Court decision to overturn bans on same-sex marriage, Carson responded:
First of all, we have to understand how the Constitution works, the president is required to carry out the laws of the land, the laws of the land come from the legislative branch. So if the legislative branch creates a law or changes a law, the executive branch has a responsibility to carry it out. It doesn't say they have the responsibility to carry out a judicial law.
There's no such thing as a "judicial law." He's badly confusing judicial review, as established by Marbury v. Madison, with something he just made up -- judicial law. The Supreme Court merely upholds or strikes down existing laws. It doesn't create new laws, therefore the president can't possibly carry out those laws since they don't exist.
Furthermore, is it possible that Carson doesn't realize that there aren't any federal bans on same-sex marriage for a would-be President Carson to uphold? I think so. As J.M. Ashby points out, if Carson is suggesting that the president can ban same-sex marriage at the state level by executive order, he's also badly mistaken on what it means to be a states' rights conservative. Bottom line: doing so would instantly manifest a constitutional crisis over an issue that Carson is completely ignorant about. On top of that, imagine a constitutional crisis involving a president who believes the Supreme Court can create "judicial laws."
It's difficult to tell whether Carson is ill-informed or if he's doing this to deliberately misinform his supporters -- cynically operating based on the presumption that his supporters are confused by the Constitution, judicial review, and the relationship between the Supreme Court and the executive branch. I'm not sure which is worse: pretending to be stupid or actually being stupid.
The scary thing is that Carson won't lose any voters because of it. If nothing else, he'll actually pick up support because, after all, dilettantes sell.
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