At the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast, the keynote speaker was Dr. Ben Carson, a retired renowned neurosurgeon. In his address, Carson excoriated political correctness, supported health savings accounts, and advocated for the implementation of a federal flat tax. The oration occurred in an unorthodox non-partisan setting with President Barack Obama at the head table. The conservative intelligencia, including talk show host Rush Limbaugh, sang his accolades before millions of fellow conservatives. Carson precipitously became a folk hero to some on the right. An attendant draft movement was established to urge a Carson candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.
Carson is a non-politician and only became a Republican in 2014. While in most fields someone with no experience would hardly be seen as a credible option for the top job, in politics being a non-politician can be an asset as Americans increasingly hold establishment politicians in low repute.
Should Carson seek the Republican nomination, he would not be the first non-politician to do so. In addition, Carson would not be the first recent convert to a political party to run for its nomination. However, as a former neurosurgeon, he would be entering uncharted waters. Most previous non-politicians who sought the presidency were either businessmen or military men.
Perhaps the candidate whose circumstances were most similar to Carson was Wendell Willkie. Willkie, a corporate lawyer and utilities executive, wowed Republicans with his 1938 debate performance against U.S. Attorney General Robert Jackson on the issue of free enterprise. Willkie was a former Democrat who became a Republican in opposition to the domestic policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, particularly with respect to public utilities. A draft movement began for Willkie to run for the 1940 GOP presidential nomination. The party was split among four candidates. Willkie pocketed the nomination on the sixth ballot at the convention. While most rank-and-file Republicans supported him in the general election, many were wary of a nominee who was not a politician and who had just recently joined the party. U.S. Senator James E. Watson (R-IN) quipped: "I don't mind the Church converting a whore, but I don't like her to lead the choir the first night."
During the general election, Willkie often appeared to be uncomfortable with his new party affiliation. He would often refer to Republicans as: "You Republicans," and appeared uncomfortable in the Republican Party. Willkie ran a respectable presidential campaign, but could not overcome the popular Roosevelt who won an unprecedented third term as president.
In 1992, billionaire industrialist H. Ross Perot issued a challenge to his supporters on the CNN program Larry King Live to get him on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. His supporters rose to the occasion. At a time when Americans were disaffected with the partisan paralysis, Perot's independent candidacy appealed to a widespread cross-section of constituencies. In addition to Independent voters, Perot's economic nationalism appealed to voters who had supported Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Pat Buchanan in the presidential primaries. Perot's focus on deficit reduction appealed to supporters of Democrat Paul Tsongas, who had made fiscal austerity his flagship issue during the primary. A June Gallup poll showed Perot actually leading in the popular vote at 39 percent. However, Perot soon abandoned his presidential candidacy, stating that he did not want to split the vote in the Electoral College, resulting in the election being thrown into the U.S. Congress. Perot later reentered the race, explaining that the real reason he had dropped out was that a Republican operative had threatened to sabotage his daughter's wedding. Despite this erratic episode, Perot performed well in the presidential debates and won 18.9 percent of the vote. Perot ran again in 1996, but did not muster enough support to be invited into the debates. He garnered just 8.4 percent of the vote in that election.
In 1996, Morry Taylor, the CEO of Titan Tire Corporation, spent about $6 million in his bid for the GOP presidential nomination, only to pull out of the race after garnering less than 1 percent of the vote. He tried to piggyback on Perot's anti-politician message. Taylor ran a very candid and spirited campaign, maintaining that he would only serve one term. When asked if he would run for re-election, Taylor answered: "Why the Hell would I want to do that?"
The last non-politician to win the presidency was General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1952, Eisenhower, who like Carson had been a lifelong Independent, became a Republican to run for the nomination. Eisenhower ran as a non-ideological pragmatist. His main opponent for the nomination was conservative U.S. Senator Robert A. Taft (R-OH). The Republican Party had not held the presidency since 1933, and the party's rank-and-file voters were willing to hold their noses and support the more moderate but popular Eisenhower over the ideologically impeccable Taft. Eisenhower won the GOP nomination and easily defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson in the general election.
Similar to Eisenhower, two other military generals with no political experience were elected president: Whig Zachary Taylor in 1848 and Republican Ulysses S. Grant in 1868. Grant had only voted once prior to his own election. In 1856 he voted for Democratic presidential nominee James Buchanan over Republican nominee James C. Freemont, who Grant viewed as an egotist. Grant said: "I voted for Buchanan because I didn't know him and voted against Freemont because I did know him." In Taylor's case, he had not even registered to vote until he was 62 years old.
In contrast to Eisenhower, Taylor, and Grant, two other military men who were recent converts to a new political party saw their respective candidacies falter. In 1900, the Democrats recruited Admiral George Dewey to run for their party's presidential nomination. On paper, Dewey was a dream candidate to challenge the popular Republican William McKinley. Dewey had become a national icon for his role in defeating the Spanish during the Spanish-American War at the critical Battle of Manila Bay. When Dewey returned home, parades were held in his honor.
However, Dewey did not seem to fathom that the American people had come to expect an activist president who serves as a leader, not a figurehead who is subservient to the prerogatives of the U.S. Congress. Rather than laying out his own ambitious agenda, Dewey asserted that as president he would: "execute the laws of Congress as faithfully as I have always executed the orders of my superiors." In addition, Dewey came across as supercilious by suggesting that the presidency would not be a difficult job: "I am convinced that the office of the President is not such a very difficult one to fill." Dewey never recovered from these gaffes and consequently abandoned his candidacy. To add insult to injury, and proving that he was not really much of a Democrat, Dewey endorsed Republican McKinley over the eventual Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan.
Similarly, in 2003, the Democrats who opposed U.S. involvement in the Iraq War looked for a candidate who could neutralize the advantage that the Republican president had at the time on national security issues. General Wesley Clark fit the bill, leading to a draft movement for the former General. Clark had commanded allied forces during the successful NATO air campaign over Kosovo. In addition, General Clark had been the valedictorian of his graduating class at West Point, and looked like a president created from Central Casting.
However, like Dewey, Clark proved a better candidate on paper than in reality. His opponents questioned why Clark, a life-long Independent, had become a Democrat. A tape surfaced where Clark had praised Bush in a speech before the Pulaski County Republican Party in Arkansas in 2001. Moreover, Clark said of the 2002 resolution authorizing Bush to use force in Iraq: "On balance, I probably would have voted for it." Clark spent much of the campaign elucidating what he meant; confusingly saying that he "never would have voted for war." Clark lost the nomination, despite respectable showings in some primaries, including a victory in Oklahoma.
Dr. Ben Carson is a former neurosurgeon who has never served in political office. Should he seek the Republican presidential nomination, he would be entering a whole new political frontier. While he is charismatic and has cultivated support on the right, his lack of political experience as in the case of other non-politicians who sought the presidency, could result in political gaffes, which would take him off-message while trying to explain what he actually meant to say. In addition, being a recent convert to the Republican Party may not sit well with some party elders who may wonder if Carson is a true Republican or just a partisan opportunist. Dr. Carson is an unconventional candidate. In an era where conventional candidates who hold elective office are often scorned, for many Republicans, Carson might be just what the doctor ordered.