The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ben Carson’s presidential campaign is already off to a bad start

Ben Carson made an unforced error with documentary/campaign ad. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
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It must have sounded like a good idea at the time.  Air an hour-long documentary on conservative star Ben Carson the weekend after the midterm elections on 20 stations across the country. What could go possibly go wrong?  Well, plenty it turns out.

For starters, the documentary (ahem, campaign ad), to say it...not so good.

It's basically a clip job of Carson's greatest hits.  You want to see him in surgical scrubs years ago? How about a look at Cuba Gooding Jr. playing Ben Carson in a made-for-television movie?  That time he dissected Obamacare with the president and first lady sitting only a few feet away? How about Carson talking directly to the camera reciting parts of the Pledge of Allegiance? Blink, and you might miss him playing foosball with his son at home.

It's all there, with a female narrator who is very excited about a potential Carson candidacy.   Called "A Breath of Fresh Air: A New Prescription for America" the documentary is the biggest sign yet that Carson is seriously looking at a presidential bid in 2016. And that he's got a team of folks helping him do that. (We say he's in, until he says he's out).

Now, Carson's people have insisted this isn't an ad, it's just an introduction to Carson, a look at his life.  But that's hard to believe given that the first words spoken in the documentary come courtesy of Fox News' Sean Hannity: "There is already talk about recruiting the doctor for potentially a 2016 run."

Which brings us to the second reason the documentary/campaign ad was not such a good idea for Carson's ambitions.  Fox News, where Carson had been a contributor, yanked his contract, potentially worth a not-insignificant sum of money. But, more than the money, it's the air time and branding that Carson has given up.  Now, this doesn't mean that Carson won't ever be on the network, but it means he could be treated differently, given less of a consistent platform and labeled less as a conservative standing up for what's right and more as a ambitious politician trying to put himself over.

Yes, it has always been inevitable that this was going to happen for Carson if he finally, officially announces a run, but he could have staved off that eventuality at least for a few months had it not been for the not very good documentary/campaign ad that his team thought was a good idea.

The same thing happened to Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, but not until March of 2011, as announced on the network:

The upside of the documentary/ad, such as it is,  is geeking up Carson fans.  That hardly seems worth the tangible downsides, most notably the lost Fox contract. Carson's challenge is convincing voters that he could run the country, not a surgery. And his biography is largely known (see best-selling book and the television biography that it's based on). For Carson and his team, the documentary/ad was a false start and an unforced error, evidence that he needs more politically strategic thinkers around him even as he frames himself as an outsider.