NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Dr. Ben Carson, a conservative darling since he critiqued President Obama’s health care overhaul at the National Prayer Breakfast last month, was met with several standing ovations at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday morning, feeding speculation that he may run for office.
“In 106 days I will be retiring,” said the 61-year-old Carson, Hopkins’ longtime director of pediatric neurosurgery. “I’d much rather quit when I’m at the top of my game. And there’s so many more things that can be done.”
Carson was evasive when pressed by another speaker on whether his post-retirement plans include politics.
“I’m very dedicated to education of the next generation,” Carson said. “Once we get that taken care of, who knows?”
In a wide-ranging speech, Carson advocated for a flat income tax and called for an end to the “war on God.” He also spoke passionately about the need to improve the American education system – the thing he attributed to leading him from an impoverished inner-city childhood in Detroit to a storied medical and writing career.
“Education worked for me,” Carson said. After studying at Yale and the University of Michigan, Carson became the youngest person to lead a major division at Hopkins Hospital.
He was first surgeon anywhere to separate conjoined twins. One of his books, “Healing Hands,” was made into a television movie. In 2008, President George W. Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
“We can’t afford to throw any of those young people away,” said Carson, who with his wife set up a scholarship program for exceptional students. A better educated populous means fewer people on welfare and more taxpayers, he argued.
The main points of Carson’s CPAC speech echoed the comments he made at the prayer breakfast. Health savings accounts would suffice for most doctor-patient encounters, he said, and ensuring everyone pays an equal share of their income in taxes is akin to religious tithing.
He railed against the government’s lack of planning to deal with the national debt.
“We’re not planning for the future,” Carson said. “If we continue to spend ourselves into oblivion we are going to destroy this nation.”
He also said the government is treating corporations “as enemies” and that corporate taxes should be lowered to encourage growth. “Corporations are not in business to be social welfare organizations, they are there to make money,” Carson said.
Charities are there to offer assistance to people in need, he said, and they are better at providing for the needy that the government.
“Nobody is starving on the streets. We’ve always taken care of them,” Carson said. “We take care of our own; we always have. It is not the government’s responsibility.”
It wasn’t uncommon to see people carrying stacks of Carson’s most recent book, “America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great,” through the crowds at the annual conservative gathering. Many hoped to have their copies of the doctor’s vision for America signed before they passed them on to family and friends.
“He is a refreshing voice,” said Hannah Hughes, 20, who traveled to CPAC from Ohio with a college Republican organization. Hughes and her friends, waiting in a snaking line for Carson’s book signing, hypothesized that the most natural path for Carson to take in retirement would for him to become a university president.
But if he decided to run for U.S. president instead, Hughes said, she would “absolutely” vote for him.
“He’s a remarkable speaker and I think he’s got a nice, straight line as to where this country should be headed,” said Bill Lawrence, a 65-year-old Vietnam veteran. Lawrence said he decided to come from Albany, N.Y., for the conference after seeing Carson on television address the president at the prayer breakfast.
“He inspired me. … He sort of drove me here,” said Lawrence, who supports Carson’s belief that everyone should pay a share of their income in taxes. “Being successful not a crime,” he said.
It becomes politically more difficult to raise taxes when everyone is paying a share, said Michael Douglas, a 24-year-old law student from Florida. Douglas said he was a patient of Carson’s in the early-1990s and hearing him speak was a highlight of the conference.
“I’m trying to get a picture with him too,” Douglas said.
Brandon Posner, 17, said Carson was clearly the crowd favorite at the conference, which was in it last day Saturday. The line of people waiting to meet Carson at the book signing far exceeded the number who came out for former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a potential candidate for the 2016 Republican nomination for president.
“He’s a genius. He’s lived the American dream,” said Posner, chairman of the Bucks County Teenage Republicans in Bucks County, Pa. “He knows what made this country great.”
“He’s a normal person,” Posner said, explaining Carson’s appeal. He doesn’t seem like a politician, he said. “You can tell he cares about people.”
Carson, continuing to test the political waters, is scheduled to appear on CNN’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley on Sunday.