South Carolina Republican Mark Sanford sees a hurricane coming and he’s scared nobody cares.
“I know it’s a pleasant day on the coast of South Carolina right now, but this thing is coming our way, will be here in a short time, might we not want to have a conversation about this?” Sanford told me in a Thursday morning interview.
He’s not talking about a literal hurricane. He’s not even talking broadly about a climate crisis. This is a political storm. (And as far as political storms go, Sanford isn’t directly talking about President Donald Trump’s conduct in office, either.) The former South Carolina governor turned House lawmaker, who lost his primary challenge after Trump tweeted against him, is talking about the national debt.
In one month, Sanford says he will decide whether he has enough support to mount a primary challenge against Trump for president. If he decides to do it, he’ll be challenging the man who left him unemployed. But notably, Sanford, who has been a vocal critic of Trump in the past, isn’t here to reclaim morality, or stand against Trump’s racist rhetoric. Trump’s racism is all distraction, Sanford says, from what he sees as the true problem facing America: bloated Social Security and Medicare programs raising the national debt.
“It’s this sort of nuclear swirl with Trump in the center of it in Republican circles, and in the process, we’re not talking about issues like the debt and the deficit that I think really are going to impact people’s lives in profound ways,” he said. “I would rather you get a little more excited about debt, deficit, and government spending than the tone I hear in your voice. I want passion. I want passion on this subject.”
But the thing is, Republicans have tried to champion “entitlement reform” for years and failed. Trump came into the game, realized it was incredibly unpopular with voters, and dumped it altogether. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan called it one of his biggest regrets of leaving office. Under Ryan’s leadership, Republicans passed tax cuts geared toward corporations, and massive budgets to boost the military, growing the deficit to $779 billion in 2018, the largest since 2012, when the country was still seeing the effects of the recession.
The bottom line: Sanford doesn’t care that voters don’t like hearing about cuts to Medicare and Social Security. He’s scared of what he says will be a Great Depression-scale crisis, and he wants America to be scared too. (To be clear, there’s a lot of debate about this, and a growing economic theory on the left that could reshape conventional thinking about deficits.)
“What is needed is more of a country doctor. This medicine is not going to taste particularly great. But if we don’t do it, the illness that will befall you will be much, much worse,” he said.
This is about keeping alive Ryan’s dream of cutting the nation’s biggest social welfare programs — and Sanford is willing to run against Trump for president to do it. Here’s my conversation with Sanford, lightly edited for length and clarity.
What does the next month look like for you? What goes into deciding whether you are going to mount a presidential campaign against Trump?
You know, energy and reaction I get over the next month. The last 48 hours have been somewhat overwhelming on that front. A lot of people email you for an interview, call you and text you, and so the level of support and energy and offer of help in terms of resources will all be part of the formula of do you move forward on this? Will people come and say no, instead, what you’ve got to do is start an advocacy organization? It’s all going to be based on reaction.
Have resources materialized in the last 48 hours?
Yeah. But it’s all going to it has to be more material than the first 48 hours of this before it’s go and no-go.
I do want to ask you about the Trump rally last night. Because if you are to run for president, that’s what you will be going up against. When you were in the House — with the Republican majority — the conventional wisdom was that Trump’s rhetoric can be ignored and defended as long as Republicans could pass a conservative agenda. That’s gone now. So when you see your colleagues defending Trump telling American-born citizens, sitting lawmakers, to be “sent back,” how do you understand that?
I understand it within the context of politics. No one wants to be on the wrong side of the aisle with Trump. I’m probably poster child 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 in that demonstration. He was dancing on my grave — nobody wants that. I get it. Part of that is self-preservation, which drives a lot of action in politics. Part of it is that people can legitimately see it different ways.
What I am saying is this: I think everybody wants out of this spin cycle. It is exhausting and counterproductive. And what happens is that the president goes out and says something crazy. You guys in the media highlight it. His opponents go out and react. And then what is left for a Republican colleague who is still in the Senate or the House is “Oh, my goodness, which side of the aisle do I go on?”
I’m not saying they don’t have a choice. But it’s a difficult choice. At that point, it’s amped up. They fear people are looking, and it’s “Am I on the red versus the blue team?” And the counterproductive [part] is, I can guarantee it, we will be having this same conversation two weeks from now on some other subject.
And in that process, it’s this sort of nuclear swirl with Trump in the center of it in Republican circles, and in the process, we’re not talking about issues like the debt and the deficit that I think really are going to impact people’s lives in profound ways.
What is the biggest danger Trump poses to the Republican Party?
A cult of personality. That’s not what our country was founded on. We were founded on this country being a nation of laws and not men. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom is all about the danger of strong personalities in our political process. And there is a view that — this book is not about that — but there is a view that the Founding Fathers were more than aware of that, so they built in a lot of checks and balances, which has made the government agonizingly frustrating and slow-moving, but it is by design based on the Founding Fathers’ observations of history and the dangers of unfettered power in any one hand or institution.
Polling, popular opinion, all that aside, do you think Trump has committed impeachable offenses when you are talking about checks and balance?
I’m not in Congress. And I’m looking at 30 days of deciding to go or no go on whether to run for president. And if I were to become a candidate, I owe you an answer on every one of the hot-button issues out there.
But let me go back to the reason for our call, which is you can get comment from 535 members of our Congress and pretty much everyone else out there on all the issues that are in the swirl. But think about this. I just got through watching two Democratic presidential debates. And there was one question by a moderator or commentary by a candidate on debt, deficit, or government spending.
We have a president who has ruled out action on the very things that drive our debt and deficit. And we’re not talking about it. So we could quickly parlay into all the issues of the day. But that’s not what I’m not focused on. I’m just saying wait a minute, I see a hurricane coming in from offshore and I know it’s a pleasant day on the coast of South Carolina right now, but this thing is coming our way, will be here in a short time, might we not want to have a conversation about this? Prepare for it? Get ready? Evacuate would probably be the wrong analogy.
How do I make that more real to someone like you or to one of your readers?
Why have Republicans abandoned talking about deficits?
Because it’s a hard issue. It’s easy to spend someone else’s money in the political process. You have diffused costs and concentrated benefits to every program that’s out there, so the people people who want something, the government will show up, and the people who don’t are just trying to manage their life. People want to say yes. People want to have a reasonably good day in Washington or in their state capital. So you have this bias toward more in the way of spending. More in the way of deficit and debt. And now you have a president who won’t lead on that issue.
In fairness, though it was short-lived, Clinton actually talked about entitlement reform. For a while, George Bush did. But now you have this president, he said no, we are not going to deal with that issue. What I would argue is that we are now at a tipping point. We are going to run structural $1 trillion deficits in the next 10 years. And that’s if we stay in the benign interest rate environment we are in right now.
You look at the Fed, it’s exhausted its ability to react to a crisis. You now have $12 trillion of sovereign debt priced below zero around the world, a 40-year downward slide in terms of interest rates. We have asset values that are sky-high by any objective standard. You have a perfect powder keg that could quickly ignite into a financial storm.
What can you do on the government side? Not a lot if you already operate on a structural $1 trillion deficit. What can you do on monetary policy? Not a lot if you have already quadrupled your balance sheets.
My point, without totally going totally into the weeds, is that I would make this statement: I think we are more financially vulnerable now as a civilization than at any point since starting the republic and the Civil War. And I don’t think people are thinking about that.
How are you going to make that case when Trump is saying the economy is doing well? How are you going to have the debate without going into the weeds?
The problem is that you have to go into the weeds, and I get it — in our media world, when everything is boiled down to a tweet-size observation, it’s tough.
I’m not asking about the media world. When you get on the stump, you have to rally people, and you’re not going to be talking about interest rates and monetary policy.
Well, I would love that. It would bring me joy. But I’ll give you that.
But here is what I would say. I think that people, if they understood it as a problem — and I grant you that they don’t right now — they would understand the notion that there could be a family living down the block that is stacked up on credit card debt that gives the appearance of a great prosperous life, but in fact it is a house of cards. And what I would argue is that yeah, you can buy growth. And we have been doing it.
If you believe in the stimulus package, all those things were based on buying growth. And we did it. But we have kind of run out on our ability to do much more of that, given the fact that the Fed has indeed played its cards and given the fact that we are in the largest structural deficits in peacetime our country’s history. We bought some growth, but what’s next?
You hear Trump saying lower the rate, lower the rate. He is aware of the fact that oh, my god, if I don’t keep this thing going, then a lot of things come undone awfully fast.
With the CBO projections we have, as someone who is very concerned about deficits, do you think the Republican tax cuts, the way they were passed, are still a good idea?
I think they are pretty immaterial one way or another.
Revenue rates have dropped. And —
Well, if you look at the 10-year numbers, the federal government would have taken $43 trillion over the next 10 years. It’s $41.5 trillion with the tax cut. That’s a difference of 3.5 percent.
I made national news when I said this is not a middle-class tax cut. This is fundamentally a corporate tax reduction and restructuring bill. So the bet was, we were certainly out of line with the rest of the industrial world in terms of corporate rates. We were seeing corporate inversions. But I’ll put it to you this way. The tax cut was based on, could we make our corporate environment more inviting. And I said at the time, this was an educated bet but not a guarantee. They could take that money and, instead of reinvesting it, buy back stock. Which is quite frankly what some of these companies did. And that doesn’t help you and me — it helps the top, and that’s about it.
But either way, it’s relatively immaterial in the grand scheme of things, because if we don’t get the economy going beyond the baseline, we are toast either way. It was on the margin either way. And what happens is that Republicans overstate its worth and Democrats probably overstate its damage.
If not tax cuts, Trump obviously took the position in 2016 that he would leave Medicare and Social Security untouched. It was popular. What does a successful conservative electoral strategy around social welfare reform look like?
That’s the argument of whether I can get any kind traction in the next 30 days. Yeah, you can be a pastry chef in Washington and people will say if you are handing out pastries, I’ll take one.
What is needed is more of a country doctor. This medicine is not going to taste particularly great. But if we don’t do it, the illness that will befall you will be much, much worse. We just need to have a conversation of, okay, let’s stay on this course. How does this movie play out in terms of the value of your savings account? How does this movie play out in terms of your retirement account? How does this movie play out in terms of your prospects for a job? Because if you look at the lofty asset values — and I don’t want to go into Q ratio and market caps relative to GDP and a lot of other — but if this thing blows, I would argue we will see as real a financial crisis as we certainly saw in 2008 and maybe in terms of the Great Depression. We are talking a big blowout.
And if people understood that, they’d say, okay, maybe I’ll pass on the pastry.
What’s telling is that’s not my thought. Erskine Bowles, who was chief of staff to Clinton, said we were walking into the most predictable crisis known to man.
And think about what [former Joint Chiefs of Staff] Mike Mullen said, it was his words, and this is a military guy, when asked what is the biggest threat to American security. His answer was not the Taliban or the Chinese. His answer was the debt.
In some way, you have to make real how big a problem this is. It’s a difficult thing to do, but it’s what I am going to try to do and see if there is any audience for that.
I want to just push you on — we’ve heard this before. Paul Ryan said it was his biggest regret to not touch entitlements when he had the House. What does it mean for the many, many, many Americans who rely on these programs day to day, who say they need to it be expanded?
Because there is no context. I would want it to be expanded if I didn’t know the numbers I have spent 25 years looking at and learning about.
Right, but without those programs, their day-to-day lives —
I’m not talking about eliminating them. I’m talking about can you institute reforms to preserve them. I think we could both look at Social Security Disability, where there are people who could work but choose not to work, and that takes resources from people who indeed have profound disabilities.
The problem is that we have a public that has been told what they want to hear about the longevity or the survivability to these programs. I like them too, but if we don’t make reforms, we are going to be in a world of hurt that’s going to hurt the neediest of the needy the most.
I would rather you get a little more excited about debt, deficit, and government spending than the tone I hear in your voice. I want passion. I want passion on this subject.