Editorial: Ben Carson Channels Muhammad Ali's 'Rope-A-Dope' in Debate

by Corey Ealons /  / Updated 

Dr. Ben Carson may not believe that the greatest boxer of all time - a devout practicing American Muslim - should be able to run for president of the United States, but Carson is apparently willing to make the boxer's moves his own as he makes his run for the White House.

The great heavy weight fighter Muhammad Ali had a strategy he sometimes used in his fight called "the rope-a-dope." The idea was to exert as little energy as possible as he leaned against the rope while his opponent pummeled him and eventually tired out. That's the way he trained because he knew if he went toe to toe and blow for blow with his opponent he might actually lose.

The strategy is to minimize the opportunities for mistakes and to come out unscathed. And anyone watching would have to admit that it is working.

Carson is practicing a political rope-a-dope debate style that has served him well, so far resulting not only in his rise in the polls but also his high likability ratings - the highest among all of the Republican candidates. Carson's style is to stay low, draw little attention and basically run out the clock - the very opposite of what candidates normally do during nationally televised debates. The strategy is to minimize the opportunities for mistakes and to come out unscathed. And anyone watching would have to admit that it is working.

Unlike his appearances among crowds and during media interviews, Carson hasn't made any controversial comments in any of the three debates. While other candidates are jockeying for time and making eyes with the moderators to get their attention, Carson remains calm and patient until he is asked a direct question and then presents his responses thoughtfully and deliberately in a measured tone.

This presentation to some can have the effect of making some of his more radical positions actually seem reasonable.

And each response no matter the question ends with an affirmation of the American people, how they should not be tricked into fighting against one another and how they are the rightful drivers of the future of our country.

For example, “The fact of the matter is we the American people are not each other’s enemies. It’s those people who are trying to divide us who are the enemies. And we need to make that very clear to everybody.”

Caron appears to have survived the bright lights of front runner status so far by volunteering that wattage to his fellow candidates. In fact, while he did receive some direct questions early in the first half hour, Carson had the second least amount of speaking time when the evening was done (7 minutes and 13 seconds) followed only by Jeb Bush at the very bottom. In fact, Carson may have logged the least amount of face time of candidate at or near the top of the polls in the history of presidential debates. When you consider this, it really is an extraordinary feat.

So how does he get away with it? Certainly it is the sheer number of people on the stage who have been coached, with rare exception, that you need to use this valuable free time to get attention for yourself and your campaign.

The strategy has literally taken the political neophyte neurosurgeon to the top of the GOP polls. Ali would be proud... to a point.

However, another reason is what his supporters find most appealing about him: he's not a traditional politician. So while he is running for president, which by definition makes him a politician for the moment, his instincts and actions don't synch up that way... yet.

When it came to the actual substance of his responses, Carson used another move common to boxers (and politicians) - the bob and weave. By Carson's own admission, there is not much there there when it comes the specifics of his policy proposals, but he can get away with policy light because he is loyal to his overall strategy.

For example, CNBC moderator Becky Quick asked about Carson’s tax proposal which is reportedly based on the biblical principle of tithing - giving away 10 percent of a person's earnings, which Quick noted would leave a huge revenue gap in what the country needs to operate. Carson, whose website is stunningly thin on this and other issues, noted that the rate is not 10 but 15 percent and that we could also get what we needed by making cuts and growing the economy.

“You also have to get rid of all the deductions and all the loopholes. You also have to [have some strategic] cutting in several places,” he said. “Remember, we have 645 federal agencies and sub-agencies. Anybody who tells me that we need every penny and every one of those is in a fantasy world.”

CNBC Hosts The Republican Presidential Primary Debate At The University Of Colorado Boulder
Ben Carson, 2016 Republican presidential candidate, center, speaks to the media in the spin room after the Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015. Three Republican senators running for president have come out swinging against a bipartisan budget deal as an emblem of everything that's wrong in Washington, making it a likely pinata in the party's third debate. Photographer: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesMatthew Staver / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Carson, who has made time to write a book, suspend his campaign and go on a two-week book tour but hasn’t written down his tax plan, said that more details for his policy are on the way.

“When — when we put all the facts down, you’ll be able to see that it’s not true, it works out very well,” he said to Ms. Quick when she pushed back on the equation of the $1.1 trillion hole in his plan.

Carson's other big moment of the night came in response to a direct question about his position on gay marriage. He basically offered that one can be against gay marriage and not necessarily against gay people.

“[People] shouldn’t automatically assume that because you believe that marriage is between one man and one woman that you are a homophobe,” Carson said. “And this is one of the myths that the left perpetrates on our society, and this is how they frighten people and get people to shut up. You know, that’s what the PC culture is all about, and it’s destroying this nation.”

Observers monitoring the debate quickly noted that this was a very different position on homosexuality than had been offered previously by Carson. However, the rope-a-dope let him off the hook as the moderators moved on to other issues and other candidates.

Say what you want about Carson, he is a very smart man, very well coached and very prepared for these prime time moments. Knowing a bit about his team, it wouldn't surprise me at all if they actually intentionally use the tactic and the term rope-a-dope when preparing Carson for the debates. The strategy has literally taken the political neophyte neurosurgeon to the top of the GOP polls. Ali would be proud... to a point.

You see the reason Ali is the greatest of all time is because he made his magic performing the rope-a-dope in the ring with a single opponent, one-on-one, being battered and bruised while taking extraordinary punishment for the length of time comparable to Wednesday night's debate. The only things that got Ali through it all was an iron will and an occasional bell.

Should Carson remain at or near the top of the field as the GOP winnows, time will tell if he can really take a pounding and still master the increased attention and bright lights that come with the main arena.

Just keep watching.