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Flat Taxes, Ending Medicare-Medicaid, Banning All Abortions: Meet New GOP Front-Runner Ben Carson

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Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has surpassed Donald Trump in most polls to become the new Republican front-runner. Carson’s proposals include a 10 percent flat tax, replacing Medicare and Medicaid with private health savings accounts, and banning abortion in all cases, including rape and incest. We assess Carson’s background and policy platform with New Republic editor Jamil Smith, Imani Gandy of RH Reality Check and This Week in Blackness, and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter David Cay Johnston.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our roundtable today to analyze the third Republican presidential debate—it took place in Boulder, Colorado—is John Nichols of The Nation; Jamil Smith of The New Republic; David Cay Johnston of Al Jazeera and Newsweek, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist; and Imani Gandy of RH Reality Check, is joining us from Washington, D.C.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: During Wednesday’s Republican debate hosted by CNBC, Ben Carson defended his flat tax proposal, saying it wouldn’t shortchange government coffers.

DR. BEN CARSON: Let me just say, if you’re talking about an $18 trillion economy, you’re talking about a 15 percent tax on your gross domestic product, you’re talking about $2.7 trillion. We have a budget closer to $3.5 trillion. But if you also apply that same 15 percent to several other things, including corporate taxes and including the capital gains taxes, you make that amount up pretty quickly. So that’s not by any stretch pie-in-the-sky.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Ben Carson speaking last night at the third Republican presidential debate. So, Jamil Smith, could you respond to what he said about his tax plan and also about his rather confusing healthcare plan?

JAMIL SMITH: Well, as far as his tax plan goes, I feel like, you know, he doesn’t account for the fluctuations of the market, and certainly he’s depending upon the success of the overall populace to make up for any deficiencies that his numbers create in the budget. And when he was called upon it, he simply refused to acknowledge that that’s actually true, that it’s going to—40 percent, you know, of the funding for the government is going to have to be made up, if in fact his tax plan was implemented. Now, what you have there is a tax plan that’s based upon, as he has said, the model of tithing in churches. And I just don’t understand how that is necessarily applicable to government.

Underlying his entire plan, though, is a philosophy of “I’m going to be the, you know, head of a system that is based upon making sure that people are able to succeed, and whoever succeeds, they deserve it.” And when you’re Ben Carson and you’re a world-famous neurosurgeon, life has worked out for you. And so, you can have that point of view. It’s not quite so easy when you’re talking about people on the ground, though.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what about his healthcare plan, this thing of slashing funding for Medicare and everybody having their own individual health savings plan?

JAMIL SMITH: Yes, he’s proposed to slash—he’s proposed not to slash, but to end Medicare, end Medicaid, in favor of creating health savings accounts that are funded by the government to the tune of $2,000 per year. Now, that is, of course, a politically suicidal idea, to say nothing of financially ludicrous. So, I just think that, you know, he’s, first of all, not accounting for growth in population. He’s not accounting for a growth in healthcare costs, certainly, and when he was asked about the growth in healthcare costs last night, in a substantive question from Jim Cramer, he deflected and actually said that government should be less involved with regulating the extraordinarily high spikes in drugs, in specialty drugs. So, everything I heard from him with regards to health plans and in his—with regards to pricing was very discouraging last night.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve written about him. You’ve profiled Ben Carson. Tell us who he is.

JAMIL SMITH: Ben Carson is a man who has been a hero, specifically to black Americans. I remember, certainly in my church growing up, we had copies of Gifted Hands handed out to most of us. And it’s something that everybody read. And, you know, he’s been a man who’s lionized for his Horatio Alger-like narrative. That said, it’s tailor-made for the Republican view of race in this country, is a man who’s perceived to have grown out of poverty and made a success of himself, and all the while espoused Christian values.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the Gifted Hands idea, as a neurosurgeon, his accomplishments.

JAMIL SMITH: Yes, yes. Gifted Hands was the title of his 1990 book, that was—you know, it’s a classic. It’s widely read. It’s his life story. It tells how he came up from the ghettos of Detroit to be the—you know, one of the foremost neurosurgeons in the world. That said, I think what he’s doing is completely damaging his legacy right now. Right now, I mean, especially the younger folks that have not read Gifted Hands and don’t know that man, they know him now as an incompetent presidential candidate.

AMY GOODMAN: And on his tax plan, David Cay Johnston? You have analyzed many tax plans.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: His tax plan won’t work at all. It’s in the same league as Donald Trump’s plan. These are just fantasies for voters. And significantly for Carson, tithing is not a simple 10 percent concept. I actually teach this in the law school and the graduate business school at Syracuse. It is a very complex issue with all sorts of rules. And the poor were beneficiaries of the tithing system in the ancient world, not payers into that system.

AMY GOODMAN: One issue not raised at last night’s debate was abortion, but it has been a major issue for the Republicans and Democrats. On Sunday, in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Dr. Carson said abortion should be illegal in all cases, including rape and incest. He responded to a question from Chuck Todd.

CHUCK TODD: What if somebody has an unwanted pregnancy? Should they have the right to terminate?

DR. BEN CARSON: No. Think about this. During slavery—and I know that’s one of those words you’re not supposed to say, but I’m saying it. During slavery, a lot of the slaveowners thought that they had the right to do whatever they wanted to that slave—anything that they chose to do. And, you know, what if the abolitionists had said, “You know, I don’t believe in slavery. I think it’s wrong. But you guys do whatever you want to do”? Where would we be?

AMY GOODMAN: So that is Ben Carson on Sunday. Imani Gandy, RH Reality Check, can you respond?

IMANI GANDY: I think it’s—setting aside the fact that it is, I think, fundamentally creepy and weird to compare human sentient people—slaves, black Americans—to fetuses, setting that aside, I think when he talks about abolitionists saying, “Well, I’m against slavery, but you can do whatever you want,” that’s sort of the position that he held, himself, in the '90s, when he was a practicing neurosurgeon. He would routinely refer women to abortion providers, should they need one, whether it be because the pregnancy was unwanted, or specifically he spoke about referring women whose fetuses had genetic anomalies to abortions. And I've reported on a lot of abortion providers, a lot of anti-choice abortion providers, and it’s hard to reconcile his current staunch, quote-unquote, “pro-life” stance with his prior comments and behavior with respect to acknowledging that women deserve to have a choice and should make that choice with their doctors, and actually advocating for abortion, not by performing them himself necessarily, but by referring women to other providers. So I think there’s a fundamental hypocrisy there and a disconnect between his current position and his prior positions.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to 1992, Ben Carson, then a renowned neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, appearing in an ad urging Marylanders to vote against Question 6, a ballot initiative to preserve the right to choose in the state should Roe v. Wade get struck down. Here’s a clip from that ad.

DR. BEN CARSON: Life is hectic, and it’s sometimes easy to let important decisions be made for us. Ballot Question 6 could be like that.

AMY GOODMAN: After the commercial ran, Dr. Carson found himself in the center of a political firestorm and reversed course. He asked the pro-life Vote kNOw Coalition, which sponsored the ad, to pull the commercial, and he then held a news conference organized by Maryland for Choice.

DR. BEN CARSON: My message is not to vote for or against Question 6, but to educate yourself. I did not understand that the tagline “Vote against Question 6” would be included in the ad. I don’t believe it is appropriate for a public figure of my nature to try to tell people how they should vote. … Subsequent to doing that ad, I have had an opportunity to do quite a bit of background research, and it became quite apparent that there were things that could easily be misconstrued.

AMY GOODMAN: Ellen Curro of the Vote kNOw Coalition said Dr. Carson appeared to have bowed to political pressure.

ELLEN CURRO: He may have said that today, but when he agreed to do the spot, he had signed off with approval to encourage people to vote against Question 6. And I think he’s just gotten tremendous pressure from the other side because of the political nature of this argument.

STACIE SPECTOR: I see it as a victory for Dr. Carson to be able to thoughtfully and legitimately explain how he feels about the issue.

AMY GOODMAN: The second speaker was Stacie Spector of Maryland for Choice. Imani Gandy, that controversy was 23 years ago. What does that tell you about today’s Dr. Ben Carson?

IMANI GANDY: I think it tells you that he doesn’t really have a solid position on abortion. I think that he has been driven to say more extreme things about abortion, to devolve into extremist rhetoric about abortion, because he’s a Republican presidential nominee. I also think that given that—there’s a lot of question in the anti-choice community about Donald Trump’s commitment to life, quote-unquote, “life,” and I think that sort of opens up a hole or a—there’s an opening there for Ben Carson to tack to the right of Donald Trump on abortion and to appear to be far more extreme than I actually believe that he is. I mean, even as recently as August, his communications director, Douglas Watts, as reported in Politico, said that Ben Carson believes that you shouldn’t—you shouldn’t legislate morality. He believes that abortion is going to have to be won in the hearts and minds of Americans, and he believes that women should be able to make a choice based on the medical evidence, and he believes that patients should have medical evidence. That doesn’t jibe with this current “I think Roe v. Wade should be overturned; I believe in banning abortion in all instances, including incest and rape.” So I think it’s just there’s going to—he’s going to have a problem, I believe, with the anti-choice community, should it come down to him and Trump or him and Rubio, for example, who has been very staunchly anti-choice, including in instances of rape and incest. So I think it shows that he hasn’t quite solidified his position, and he’s going to be attacked, I think, based on that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Jamil Smith, I want to ask you about other recent statements that Ben Carson has made. He said the Affordable Care Act, for example, is the worst thing since slavery, which is a rather odd claim for a doctor to make. And after the mass shooting in an Oregon community college recently, he said the Holocaust would have been less—wouldn’t have been as likely if Jewish people had had firearms to fight back. So what do you think—I mean, given these statements, which seem at least bizarre a little bit, what accounts for his rising popularity?

JAMIL SMITH: Well, as I wrote, I feel like Ben Carson is saying all the right things—for the right. I think, you know, to Imani’s point, I feel like whatever he’s—whatever is coming out of his mouth is really tailored for the Republican electorate that, you know, we’re encountering in 2015. So, I think this is more—speaks more to who is voting for Republicans rather than the Republicans themselves. I feel like what Carson is saying is—you know, it’s kind of extremist stuff that gets headlines. I mean, there should be a Carson’s law similar to Godwin’s law, “Don’t invoke Hitler”: Don’t invoke slavery, either, unless you’re actually talking about slavery. I feel like when you also talk about his position on guns and his reference to the Holocaust, that’s actually historically inaccurate. So, these are the kind of things that he eventually will be caught on and will, I think, matter should he magically, mystically become the nominee.

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