Given that it is September, when summer love fades and fall sets in, you might expect to see someone drawing even with Donald Trump. But you wouldnít expect that person to be one of the other least-likely-to-succeed candidates in the race: retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Between a retired doctor and a debt-ridden developer, who is least qualified to be president of the United States?
While their personal styles couldnít be more different, Carson and Trump hale from the same place: television. Trump was a network star, but in the world of 24-hour opinions, Carson has been a staple for years. Heís one of those people who you recognize but arenít sure why until you realize you know him ďfrom television.Ē
Being from television is not the same as being from government, although it often seems the two are interchangeable. The way politics, and news in general, get covered these days ó that is, in the form of ďhe said/he saidĒ debates and shout-fests, with the occasional attractive woman thrown in the mix ó it might seem that the required skillset is coextensive. It isnít. Certainly, being a good communicator helps you get elected, and helps you sell your programs. But if that were all it took, Barack Obama (remember him? The guy who beat Hillary Clinton?) would still have dark hair.
Being president is hard. For that matter, even getting the nomination is hard. Neither Carson nor Trump nor Bernie Sanders ó the three big outsiders as of now, with Carly Fiorina angling for a spot alongside them ó have yet to be subject to the withering scrutiny generally reserved for those whose balloons have been fully inflated by the press, and now must in the course of things be punctured. His supporters might argue that The Donald is immune from such scrutiny, but even the most recent polls suggest otherwise: Trumpís support has pretty much flattened out, and the big news is Carsonís gains, not Trumpís. Insulting Megyn Kelly might not be the best way to prove to people you should be president.
Indeed, thereís a pretty good argument to be made that the Republican race at this point has absolutely nothing to do with getting elected president, much less actually being president. I wonder how many of Trumpís supporters would stick with him if they thought he actually might win. Itís one thing to send a message; if the messenger might actually be the president of the United States, it tends to be another thing entirely, which is why most protest candidacies fail, as do most long-shot candidacies, as do most insurgent candidacies. The establishment tends to win, sooner or later, and itís not just because the rules and the momentum ultimately turn against protest candidacies (although seeing Clinton-backers pushing the South Carolina primary as her stronghold is a bit scary to her supporters, who might recognize it as George W. Bushís strategy against McCain in 2000). No, the establishment wins because voters, no matter how angry they are, tend to be rather risk-averse when it comes to picking actual presidents.
The late Lee Atwater, the first President Bushís campaign manager, used to call it the little boat. On that little boat are the handful of people we can imagine as president, whether we support them or not. At this point, only one 2016 contender is in that boat, albeit with her life preserver on. Jeb Bush has a familial claim on a perch, but so far, that isnít getting him very far; Joe Biden has a vice presidentís claim, although the best vice presidents donít necessarily make the best presidents (one of the worst insults heaped on Hubert Humphrey in his failed 1968 run was that he had the soul of a vice president).
Itís hard to imagine either Trump or Sanders or Carson making it onto that little boat. On the other hand, the little screen offers limitless possibilities. If members of the press are the ultimate insiders (and, in Washington, they are) then the fastest route there might be from the outside in. Just ask Mike Huckabee.
Susan Estrich is a columnist, commentator and law and political science
professor at USC.