Ben Carson, shown speaking at the National Sheriffs’ Association presidential forum in June. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)
Columnist

The vetting of Ben Carson is focused in the wrong direction. Yes, when a candidate’s raison d’etre is biography, the accuracy of his purported life story is fair game — even if some of the Carson flyspecking has been tendentious.

But the more fundamental question — the scarier question — about Carson isn’t whether the retired neurosurgeon is a fabulist, and therefore whether he has the right character to be president. It’s whether he has the knowledge and understanding to be president. The evidence is rather conclusive that he doesn’t.

Why single out Carson? This is a fair question in a Republican race whose other front-runner is Donald Trump. But Trump’s brand of blustery unpreparedness is more self-evident, more accessible, than Carson’s. Trump will build a tremendous wall. He’ll stop making stupid deals. If voters are credulous enough to be seduced by his supposed managerial skills and convinced by his grandiose promises — well, that’s on them, though woe to the rest of us.

Carson’s ignorance is of a more subtle sort, delivered with his genial bedside manner. It unfolds not in indignant sound bites but in paragraphs of pure blather. Carson doesn’t just need fact-checking. He needs thought-checking.

This unsettling truth has displayed itself throughout the Republican debates. Carson tends to be a lurker at these events; where others elbow for time, Carson seems happy, for the most part, to hold back and watch. His cumulative speaking time at the four debates so far has been 36 minutes and 21 seconds, compared with Donald Trump’s 50 minutes and 24 seconds. Only Rand Paul has spoken less.

Speaking to students at Liberty University, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson discussed criticism he said has faced about his belief in creationism and his role as a scientist. (Reuters)

This may be a smart tactic. Because when Carson is questioned, he has a tendency to flail. The tripartite architecture of these non-answers has become apparent: duck the actual question; revert to a comfortable, if irrelevant, talking point; finish with patriotic platitude. Carson’s approach is effective because it is so hard to capture its inanity in the confined space of a televised sound bite or newspaper article.

Consider his answer during the Fox Business-Wall Street Journal debate to a question from Journal Editor in Chief Gerard Baker: “Do you think JPMorgan and the other big banks should be broken up?

Carson went on for 344 words — nearly half this column — without answering. He denounced the “stampede of regulations, which is involved in every aspect of our lives.” Such rules, he said, are driving up the cost of a bar of soap, hurting the poor. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, he said, “say it’s the rich, take their money, but that won’t work.” And, in conclusion, “We have to come back to the fundamental principles that made America great.”

Baker persisted. “Just to be clear . . . you wouldn’t favor breaking up the big banks?”

Carson: “I would have policies that wouldn’t allow that to occur. I don’t want to go in and tear anybody down. I mean, that doesn’t help us. But what does help us is stop tinkering around the edges and fix the actual problems that exist that are creating the problem in the first place.”

Okay then.

This is not Debate 101 answer-the-question-you-wish-you-were-asked obfuscation. It is a candidate without command of the subject matter. Nor is it an isolated flub.

Asked whether he supported President Obama’s move to send Special Operations forces to Syria and leave 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, Carson’s answer careened around like a crazed pinball, bouncing between wrong facts (“You know, the Chinese are there [in Syria]”) and unenlightening platitudes (“Putting the Special Ops people in there is better than not having them there, because they — that’s why they’re called Special Ops”).

Previous debates were much the same. Asked about vaccines and autism, Carson defaulted to denouncing “big government” for taking “so much of our taxes.” Asked whether he would have used military force against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons, Carson bemoaned cuts to the military, concluding, “I would shore up our military first, because if you don’t get the military right, nothing else is going to work.”

Asked about subsidies for oil and ethanol, Carson went back to overregulation and that bar of soap. Asked about pharmaceutical companies hiking drug prices, Carson came up with, “The government is not supposed to be in every part of our lives, and that is what is causing the problem.”

I welcome a campaign that features candidates with whom I disagree; debating such differences is the essence of democracy.

A campaign with candidates so ill-informed could be its undoing.

Read more from Ruth Marcus’s archive, follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her updates on Facebook.