As Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson has grown in popularity in recent weeks, political commentators are adjusting to his new status as off-and-on front-runner in the 2016 GOP primary race. An example of this came when a panel of strategists on MSNBC’s “Up” called Carson a “safe negro” Sunday while explaining his appeal to white Republican voters.
When host Richard Liu asked Republican strategist E. O’Brien Murray what about Carson appealed to Republican primary voters, Murray replied by saying he thought people appreciated the retired neurosurgeon’s attacks on President Barack Obama, the nation's first black president. He specifically referred to Carson’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013 in which he harshly criticized the president.
“It was his attack of Obama, and frankly a black man attacking a black president, which is something people get away [with]...When you talk about it years ago, remember he stood in front of the president and he made his bona fides originally attacking the president face to face, at a prayer breakfast, mind you,” Murray said.
Democratic strategist and social justice advocate L. Joy Williams jumped in with a similar comment, explaining how she sees Republicans react to Carson.
“The really important thing of people supporting him because it’s, oh, there’s another black man commenting or -- negatively against the president, and I don’t feel comfortable in doing so because of the race factor,” Williams said. “So here’s someone who can do it that’s kind of --”
Murray then interrupted Williams to contest the idea that he and other Republicans are uncomfortable criticizing Carson because of the candidate’s race.
“Not at all. The question was what was he doing,” Murray said. “He was attacking the president, and he was going after him in such a way that was very well pointed out, where the issues were with the president with Obamacare and other things. Given his narrative and history and his bio, which is fantastic…”
Williams responded again. “Which is one in terms of having the, I was going to say, having the 'safe negro' comment on someone that you’re against,” she said.
The topic of Republicans not knowing how to deal with Carson’s race has come up several times in the campaign so far. When Carson moved ahead of Trump in Iowa polls a few weeks ago, Trump began trying to attack the neurosurgeon during his campaign events. But at one event Oct. 23, The Daily Banter reported that the New York businessman assured his audience it was alright for him to criticize Carson because Trump’s black friend told him so.
“Ben Carson is the one that’s leading Iowa, supposedly, okay. And I said, ‘I gotta talk about him.’ A friend of mine who happens to be a great, great athlete, he happens to be African-American. He calls himself black, he said ‘I’m black!’
“I said, ‘I can’t say that, it’s not politically correct,’ it’s true. He said, ‘You are the greatest trash-talker that has ever lived,’
and I never thought… He says this to me! And he said, ‘I never thought I’d say it about a white guy!’
“Can you believe this? And I said, ‘I don’t know if that’s true or not,’ because I refused to acknowledge…He said ‘When you said low energy for Bush, you defined him so incredibly, it was over. He can have $125 million in the bank, Donald, it’s over. It was just defined!’
“But I said, but Ben Carson is super-low-energy, right? It’s super. He’s super low. Super low energy. We need tremendous energy!”
Carson is known for making colorful, often controversial comments that seem to excite voters and have kept him in the news for weeks. However, after his surge in Iowa polling and a national CBS/New York Times poll late last month, more recent polls have Trump back at the top of the GOP field. Still, the two remain in close competition at the front of the race, and their attention is unlikely to wane any time soon.