How Ben Carson bungled a potential political career

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Ben Carson bungled a great opportunity.

Three months ago, he was known as one of the most accomplished doctors in the country, a man with a prestigious post at John Hopkins University, a long list of achievements that included the separation of conjoined twins and a Presidential Medal of Freedom award.

His books and speeches had given some hints of his conservative politics, but even African-Americans who disagreed with his political stances respected Carson as a medical expert and motivational speaker.

Carson could have smoothly entered politics in a number of ways, from appearing on television shows to talk about health care to getting himself in position to be tapped for a post in a Republican administration if the GOP wins back the White House in 2016.

Nevermind all that. In only a few weeks, Carson has tossed away much of his credibility in what appears to be a shallow attempt to draw attention to himself.

The problem isn’t that Carson blasted President Obama at a traditionally non-partisan prayer breakfast, with the president sitting a few feet away, and made very controversial comments on gay marriage.

Carson, like many Christian conservatives, sounds like he has genuine concerns with President Obama’s record and increased national momentum to allow same-sex unions.

The problem is that the surgeon’s media blitz, as he told the Washington Post himself, was not geared toward impacting public policy, or even becoming one of the leading black voices in a Republican Party that has little diversity.

He just wants a tv show.

Referring to an on-camera career, he told the Post, “Maybe if you write about it in your article, somebody will say, ‘Let’s do it.”

With his unique combination of race, background, clout and expertise, Carson could have aimed higher. But even if he wanted simply to appear on television, there was a much smarter approach. CNN”s Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon like Carson, has turned his medical expertise into a highly successful television career. Mike Huckabee weaves his experiences as a pastor, governor and presidential candidate smartly on his Fox News show.

But Carson took the route of Sarah Palin and Herman Cain, neither of whom actually has a television show or is very well respected by conservatives. (Tea Party activists love the way Palin and Cain take on Republicans, but are not eager to have either run in 2016.)

Instead of invoking his medical experience, Carson took the easiest path possible for z conservative, particularly one who is black, to gain notoriety quickly: an in-your-face blast at Obama, hints of running for president despite not having spent any time in electoral politics, inflammatory rhetoric (he cast the White House as trying to create “a culture of ridicule for basic morality,” and jabs at race (“When did we reach a point where you have to have a certain philosophy because of the color of your skin?” he said at CPAC, according to the Huffington Post.)

Contrast Carson with Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), another conservative whose profile has grown over the last month. Paul raised an actual policy issue (the Obama administration’s use of drones), spoke sincerely about it both in television interviews and on the Senate floor and then used that notoriety to start spelling out his views on other issues, such as dramatically reducing federal spending. Some of Paul’s views, such as eliminating the federal Department of Education, are just as controversial as Carson’s. But his actions came from a place of trying to impact policy, not just get attention.

Carson could have taken a similar tact. “Obamacare” is now being implemented in states, and who would have had more credibility to criticize the law from a conservative point of view than an award-winning black surgeon? Even if he wanted to talk about issues like gay marriage outside of his formal expertise, Carson would have had more credibility if not for his open pining for more attention, which made him seem like Palin, making inflammatory comments for shock value.

Now, even if Carson gets a television gig, he has severely limited his potential audience and influence. Liberals, moderates and African-Americans will see him as another conservative using Obama-bashing as a route to fame and ignore what he says, even on medical issues.

Fox News, the most logical landing spot for Carson, would likely prefer someone who didn’t start appearing on television largely for notoriety: the conservative network is increasingly featuring more moderate, less fiery figures such as ex-Massachusetts U.S. Senator Scott Brown. And if a Republican wins the election in 2016, would Carson really be a good pick for an administration post, after showing an obvious lack of discipline in terms of his comments over the last few weeks?

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr