Gaffe Track: Carson Doesn't Understand What Debt Limit Is

Charlie Neibergall / AP
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The candidate: Ben Carson

The gaffe: Speaking to Marketplace, Carson revealed that he has no idea how the debt limit—a ceiling not on how much the government spends, but on whether it can borrow to pay off existing debts—functions. “Should the Congress then and the president not raise the debt limit? Should we default on our debt?” Kai Ryssdal asked. Carson replied: “Let me put it this way: if I were the president, I would not sign an increased budget. Absolutely would not do it. They would have to find a place to cut.” Ryssdal tried repeatedly to refocus Carson from spending to the debt limit, and Carson clearly didn’t understand the difference.

The defense: Carson is wrong, but he’s not alone. Most Americans don’t understand the debt ceiling. Moreover, while many Republicans saw brinksmanship on the debt limit as leverage against President Obama, others seemed to sincerely and incorrectly believe the nation wouldn’t default if it wasn’t raised—including Carson’s Republican rival Rand Paul.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): The president of the United States needs to understand the difference between the debt ceiling and the budget.

The moral: This stuff is a little complicated, but it ain’t brain surgery.