This is IJR’s fifth segment of The 2020 Twenty. We’re asking every 2020 presidential candidate 20 questions on their plans, policies, outlook, and background as well as some lighter ones to help our readers get to know the people and their personalities as they compete to run the country.
Former Congressman and Governor Mark Sanford is the third Republican to throw his hat in the ring to take on President Donald Trump for the presidential nomination. While candidates Bill Weld and Joe Walsh had a lot of strong words against Trump in their conversations with IJR, Sanford was much more hesitant to go after the president. Instead, he’s making his campaign about what he sees as an impending crisis: the national debt. Instead of taking down Trump, he’s hoping to spark a nationwide conversation about what the federal government must do to live within its means.
1. As president, what would be your day one, number one priority?
Beginning the process of righting our financial ship. It’s telling to me that the former director of the Congressional Budget Office [Douglas Holtz-Eakin] over the weekend labeled the national debt as the biggest threat to our civilization. It’s telling to me that Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has labeled it the same. That would be day one for me.
2. You are running to bring attention to the national debt. The debt is largely driven by entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. What changes would you make to these programs to cut the debt?
Let’s see, what would I do? I would focus on reforming. So, for instance, when I was in Congress, I offered a bill in my first stint in Congress that would move and transition the system to a system of personal accounts. I think that reform is vital to its longevity and it’s my hope to improve the financial picture of our country. You look at any of the numbers: They cannot continue to exist as they are. Reform is mathematically a necessity and I think it, at a practical level, you look, for instance, at the rate of return for a young person, today, is actually negative on Social Security. For every dollar you put in, you get less than a dollar back out. That is hardly a way in which to build wealth for young millennials and the generation that follows. And so, I don’t want to get into the weeds but the short form answer is: I believe that reform to these programs is vital and would propose such.
Would your reforms be minor changes or a complete overhaul of the entitlements system?
I would propose overhauling the system. So, I mean small tweaks are good, but what they do for a young person is they make the return more negative. You know, Flemming v. Nestor was a 1960 Supreme Court decision that said none of us have any legal claims whatsoever to our Social Security checks. And the system worked well when we had the Baby Boomer generation moving through. What you don’t want to do is to guarantee generational inequity which is what the programs, in many cases, offer now. The first Social Security recipient put $20 into the system and got out $42,000. Needless to say, she loved the system. But talk to anyone of my four sons or a lot of other young people out there, they’d say they’re more likely to believe in a UFO than to believe they’ll get their taxes fully paid back from Social Security.
3. You have said that you are running to bring about awareness of the national debt and to change the narrative on spending in the Republican Party, but you have been open about your slim chances of winning and have said that you would vote for Trump in the general. In his interview with IJR, your fellow competitor Joe Walsh questioned why you would run against Trump in the primary if you don’t think you could win. What is the main reason you are running? Does Walsh have a point?
I respectfully disagree. I mean, I think it’s very healthy to be realistic. I mean it is decidedly unrealistic to say, ‘No problem. We’re gonna win.’ What’s history say on that? Primary challengers since the 1950s — in fact, the last person to be overtaken and not get the party’s nomination from a sitting president was Chester Arthur and it was like in the 1860s. (Editor’s note: President Arthur lost the GOP nomination to James Blake in 1884.) And so, if you’ve got, you know, 150 years of history should tell you something. Look at any of the recent five challengers, not one of them got the nomination, but in every instance, they were able to shape the debate. As a consequence of their run, they changed the electoral outcome. Not for themselves, but for the nominee.
So I think that certainly, one can win. One might win. One can be hopeful about winning, but I think you’ve got to go in with your eyes wide open and say, ‘If I don’t win, could I still succeed? Could there be any success outside of outright electoral winning.’ That’s why if people look at my website they see we’ve laid out three goals. One, can we shape the debate. I think it’s telling, I watched the Democratic debate the other night and there was not one mention of debt or deficit as an issue. Many issues were discussed, but that was not one of them. And so my point is, I think we ought to discuss it. I mean think about this. A deficit is nothing more than deferred taxes. We’re now running record levels of deferred deficit in peacetime, which is to say, we’re deferring taxes like we never have before.
Our country was founded on no taxation without representation, but why in the world is it fair for young people to be handed the bill for government that’s consumed today. Because that’s what a deficit is. And so the idea of highlighting that and making that part of this national debate that occurs once every four years, I think would be a win. If we get further down the pike and get some number of delegates, we could have an impact at changing the Republican Party platform at the convention in Charlotte, that’d be a win. And third, would be winning and doing something about it. That’d be a win, too, but I think you have to lay out goals sequentially based on odds of achievement. I think history says it’s certainly a long shot with the last goal, but it’s not a long shot on the first two.
You’ve noted that you would vote for Trump if he’s the Republican nominee. Why would you vote for Trump in the general, given that he has added to the national debt and annual deficit while in the White House?
Let me explain that. What I’ve said is, I’m a Republican. It would be quite natural for me to support whoever is closest to the ideas that I believe in. I’ve laid out debt and deficit as being the bullseye of things that need to be discussed in the presidential debate. I’m going to vote for whoever is closest to the ideas that I believe in. And what I was saying in that interview was everything is relational in politics. I mean, there’s no perfect candidate out there. Who relationally is closest to where you are is the question. And so, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders seem to be on the rise in the Democratic side and my point was, you can’t say to me that Bernie Sanders is closest to my top issues than Donald Trump.
4. What is your favorite show to binge-watch?
I’m fairly pathetic on that front. I don’t really watch much television. The answer is that I don’t binge-watch, but you know, I need to start.
5. While serving as governor, you received an endorsement from the environmental group The Sierra Club for your work to conserve state lands. Climate change has been a top issue for Democrats while Trump brushes it off as a hoax. What do you think is the government’s role in battling climate change?
I think the government has a real role. Let’s begin with, I believe in science. I mean, it is inconceivable to me that people can say, you know, ‘It’s amazing what science can do in the human body and I went to this hospital and they did whatever to me.’ And they believe in science there but then they say, ‘Oh, when it comes to the larger climate, I don’t believe this.’ That to me is nonsensical.
So, I believe in science broadly. I think the government has a role always in being the arbiter between private and public interests. And if you’re a conservative, you say, ‘Your rights extend until they begin to infringe upon mine.’ They don’t go further. And so, government’s role is to, again, define and enforce that line between your rights and my rights. Now, where it gets difficult, where political philosophy often falls in is one, where is that line, and two, what’s the enforcement mechanism. How do you resolve this? And that’s where people based on different political philosophies will say, ‘I think this way or that way.’ But I think it’s, to me, crazy to deny that it exists.
Are there any specific policies, such as a carbon tax, that you would support to reduce emissions?
I will look at all of them. I have not settled on a course yet. I think as a policy question, we first off need to decide what’s your alternative. And for me, along with renewables — which are great, I believe in wind and solar and someday, something on tidal and wave action — I think we have to really be open to the debate on nuclear. Which I say to a lot of my environmental friends and they just want to do renewables. And again, I’m for renewables. But if somebody’s driving an electric car and happens to get electricity through a typical plant in South Carolina maybe feels good about themselves but they’re not making as big a change as they would like to claim in regard to a carbon footprint. So I believe in very strongly looking at the nuclear options with regard to an energy source.
6. Several states, including South Carolina, have canceled their Republican primaries and party nominating conventions, signaling their loyalty to Trump. What do you think about this decision?
Well, I just held a press conference a few moments ago and I’m on my way to do another one in Columbia and later in the week in Charleston to speak up against what the executive committee [of the South Carolina GOP] has decided here in South Carolina. It’s a mistake. I think it takes from South Carolinians their historic voice in the Republican process of electing their next president. I think that’s important. It’s anti-American. I mean, you think about it, you know. In some countries they have coronations. In some countries, they have a military coup. Some have fixed elections. The American way is winning an election and I think taking that away so you might preserve the president’s political options and help him going forward, I think, may help him but it hurts the voters. And I think it’s a big mistake.
7. Do you have any hidden talents?
I wouldn’t say it’s a talent, but certainly an acquired skill over time, but I operate heavy equipment. I grew up on a farm about an hour south of Charleston and, you know, I grew up running bulldozers and tractors, and those kinds of things and I guess that could maybe be described as a hidden talent. Well, I don’t know. It’s a talent, a skill. I’m trying to think what else. I think that would be the first one that jumps to mind.
8. You, like President Trump, have had a controversial personal life. What do you say to Americans who are tired of controversies and want to see a role model in the White House?
I would say that I don’t think anybody should be judged in life based on their best day, nor their worst day. They should look at the totality of one’s life and where they’re coming from. And outside of that one incident, you wouldn’t find controversy in my life. And so, it’s something that I have apologized for. I believe in the Christian model of repentance and second chances and I was afforded one. After that, people back home who knew me best said, ‘Look, we don’t approve of how you handled that chapter of life, but we know you and we trust you. Not only will we give you a second chance, we’ll take you to Washington to be our representative in the United States Congress.’ And that’s a pretty humbling journey to go on.
Again, I’m not trying to conditionalize, but I’m saying, I guess I would say there’s been more of a pattern with the president with regard to a whole host of different controversies, rather than a one-off event that’s obviously very well documented. It was obviously a big deal for myself, the state, and those that I love. But those are different things. And I would just add this: It’s my personal belief that, in the wake of public failure which obviously I went through, you can be the better for it. I mean, the president has said there’s nothing in his life for which he apologizes or regrets. I do regret that chapter of life. And I think in wake of regret, public shame, and all the good with that, you can learn a new level of humility that makes you a better person, better leader, better dad, better a lot of things. And a different level of empathy in recognizing that we all have feet of clay; we all make mistakes. We all wish we had a chapter of life that we wish we could hit rewind and play on, but that’s not how life works. So you live with the scar tissue that comes with whatever your event was and either you learn from and it makes you a better person or you pretend it doesn’t exist which you don’t learn a lot from.
9. You have argued that the government shouldn’t be involved in health care, instead supporting health savings plans to incentivize personal savings for medical expenses. Do you believe there is any role for government to play in providing health care to Americans?
Well, what I’ve said is the government ought to be there to help those who can’t help themselves, to help the needy, the underprivileged, the person who’s between chapters in life. That’s absolutely the role of government as far as what makes for a working society. But what we’ve had evolve in many cases there are middle-class taxes to help people who don’t need help. The idea that Bill Gates gets the same Medicare program that somebody in South Carolina upon clicking through some years of your life is fairly profound. It means our focus is undirected. Therefore, that means we give less help to maybe some of the folks who need it most. And more help than is needed to some of the folks who are better off.
And so, I think the help ought to be directed and focused. I think that what I’ve said about health savings accounts is there’s nothing more personal than one’s health. The idea of having the ability to alter the way in which you get the benefits of government to be something that makes sense. For instance, the fatal flaw of the Affordable Care Act [ACA] was that it set a floor-level of insurance. So, if I said to you, ‘I’ve got a great insurance policy for you and it’s a spectacular policy and it’ll cover your house like you can’t believe. It’ll cover up to $2 million worth of damage.’ And you’re like, ‘Well, my house is only worth $200,000. I don’t need a $2 million policy.’ Nope, this is the plan that we mandate. One of the things that I offered in a bill that I offered back in Congress was to make less expensive insurance legal again. It’s not even legal under the ACA. And so, what that means is young people, like my four sons, they ended up just saying, ‘Well I don’t need all those bells and whistles. I just risk it going out and, given how the exchanges work, I can get it at the last minute. Well wait, that’s not insurance. That is waiting until your house is burning to buy a policy on your house.
So, what I was trying to say was: How do we allow more young people, more healthy people to buy insurance that works for them. If they’re, you know, athletic and they’re eating right, and they’re healthy, they ought to be rewarded for that rather than lumped in with some couch potatoes that sits around watching sitcoms all day — binge-watching as you called it — drinking Coke and eating potato chips. All I’m after is personalizing the system so the individual initiative is rewarded. I agree with what the ACA did on not knocking people out with pre-existing conditions. I agreed with what the ACA offered in not taking you off your parent’s plan until age 26. I think there’s a middle ground there where you are better able to rifle-shot benefits to people that need it and reward people for good behaviors and personalize based on what you do and don’t need.
10. You have voted for wall funding in the past. Do you believe a wall is necessary for a sound immigration policy?
Yeah. It’s simply another tool in the tool kit. We have some existing border wall. We’ve got about a 2,000-mile border. We have about 700 miles of wall, border, fencing, etc. And so, you know, the whole debate, that was for 80 additional miles. And I kept telling my Republican friends, you’ve got to understand here, when they say wall, they’re overplaying it. There are still 1,300 miles that are open. And then I remember my Democratic friends said, ‘Oh I didn’t know that’ too. So, I think it is part of a larger strategy on making sure that we have a secure border. Some of which will include wall. Some of which will include technology. Some of which will include a variety of different technologies and people to secure our border.
11. If you could get a drink with any previous president, who would it be?
Thomas Jefferson. I mean, you know, I went to his academic village — the University of Virginia. And to walk on the lawn at UVA is to walk and be inspired by the incredible contributions that he made to our republic in not only UVA but obviously in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
12. You support free trade and generally oppose tariffs, which have been Trump’s main tool in negotiations with China. You have acknowledged that China must be brought to the table to discuss issues like climate change and intellectual property theft. Do you support Trump’s trade war?
I do not. You know, when I was in Congress, I actually had a bill that would allow Americans to travel to Cuba. My point being that, you know, engagement I think is much more productive in changing regimes than non-engagement and isolation. So I think, one, if we’re about changing China, I think engagement is a better way to go. Two, tariffs are simply taxes that are imposed on the American consumer and if you look at the cost of washing machines and dryers and the way that they’ve gone up in the wake of Trump’s tariffs — and a whole host of other products — this is something that hurts us.
And more to the point, it won’t have an effect. In the same way that other trade-embargo that they put in place in Cuba kept in place the Castro family for much longer than any of these presidents have been around, I think it often calcifies and freezes in place existing institutions. What we’ve said is, no unilateral tariffs don’t work, just as unilateral embargos don’t work. It’s got to be multi-lateral which is why I think something along the line of TPP [the Trans-Pacific Partnership pushed by President Obama], which the Obama administration had been moving us toward is the answer. You have to be multi-lateral to have an effective impact with China.
13. Most Americans feel their tax system is unfair. You’ve argued for a “flatter, broader” tax structure in the United States. Why do you think that is the best option?
The ideal, in my view, would be the Fair Tax or a flat tax.
(Editors note: The Fair Tax is a proposal that would do away with the IRS by ending income taxes in exchange for a nationwide sales tax. This proposal includes a “prebate” which pre-funds households with the taxes they would pay, up to the poverty level so low-income families do not face more taxes, but the law is applied equally to everyone, without loopholes. The Flat Tax is an income tax which impacts everyone the same. Millionaires and the middle class would all pay the same percentage with no loopholes, deductions, or credits.)
I like the Fair Tax because you get at the underground economy. But I’m open to either one, Fair or Flat. They both have different bells and whistles that I like. I like the simplicity of a flat tax; the idea of saying, you know, here, on the back of a notecard, here’s what you owe and the transparency is important and the simplicity is important. Either of those I’m open to and supportive of.
14. Do you support the legalization of marijuana?
I believe in federalism. I think that states ought to decide what works for themselves and their citizens. So I voted against a number of different federal bills. For instance, marijuana is legal in Colorado, but based on federal law, a legitimate business in Colorado cannot access the federal banking system. And I think that that’s so inconsistent. Republicans have said we believe in federalism, then not all decisions need to be made in Washington D.C. You ought to push power and authority down to the most local level possible. And yet when this happens with something that some conservatives don’t like, like marijuana legalization in Colorado, they’re going to use every tool against them to basically keep those businesses operating as illicit businesses in their inability to access the federal banking system. I guess what I’d say is, I’m not for or against, but I’m for states deciding what makes sense for them. And in that case, I think that if a state votes to legalize marijuana, they ought to be treated just as any other business would be.
15. Is there any part of your childhood that might have prepared you to be president?
I was a boy scout, an eagle scout at that. And you know, you learn about organizing folks, and organizing things, and I think there’s probably some value to that. And my dad was notoriously frugal. We had the whole family move into my parent’s room in the summer to save electricity, though he didn’t need to do it. But he was raised in the Depression and so, you know, my mom and dad would be on the bed and my sister got the window. My brothers and I would sleep on the floor in sleeping bags. In retrospect, you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s crazy.’ But I guess he was prepping me for my focus on frugality, which I’m now trying to talk to a few folks about.
16. What do you see as the greatest foreign policy threat facing the United States?
The American debt. I mean, I think, again, Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when asked what’s the biggest threat to American’s security answered not the Taliban, not the Chinese, not the Russians, but the American debt.
17. While you campaign on cutting spending and reducing the national debt, 2020 Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are climbing in the polls while promising programs like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. What do you say to Americans who are not concerned about the national debt and would like to see the U.S. implement these programs?
I understand where they’re coming from. And I frankly don’t blame them. I mean, it’s not a failure of working Americans that the debt and deficit issue is not front-burner. It’s a failure of political leadership. And because, to your point earlier, some of the solutions are complex or difficult or perceived to be one of those two, political figures have refused to talk about them. They give them lip service and they move on. Even President Trump said, ‘If you elect me, I’ll cut the debt in the eight years I might be in office.’ And now he’s ballooning it. And so, if nobody’s talking about it in the elected leadership level, people think some more of that, or some more of that, won’t hurt. And politicians are asking, ‘Would you like that; would you like that?’ Without concern as to how do we pay for the promises already on the table.
18. What is your favorite kind of music to listen to on the campaign trail?
I’m rather dull and boring on that front. I can’t say that I listen to a lot of music on the campaign trail. I do if I’m on a piece of heavy equipment, oddly enough, going back to our heavy equipment point. And so, oddly enough — Have you heard of Rüfüs Du Sol? He’s an Australian thing that my boys turned me onto. I think he’s kind of cool and I like Rüfüs.
19. With the recent mass shootings in mind, what would you do to curb gun violence?
I am big on the Second Amendment, but what I’m saying is these ideas on Red Flag Laws, in the same way that you can lose your rights based on the threat of domestic violence, I think you ought to be able to pull a Red Flag order on the perceived threat of gun violence. (Editor’s note: Red Flag laws allow law enforcement to take the guns of someone when they believe they could be a threat to the public. Critics argue that such laws infringe on the due process rights because the owner is not notified of the proceedings or allowed to pose a defense until after the guns are confiscated.)
I don’t think that’s a permanent abridgment of a Constitutional right. It’s a temporary abridgment based on the level of proof of a threat. If you think about Parkland, many of the kids had raised a complaint against the gunman. There had been any number of different notices down that way, but folks on the local level were not empowered to do anything. That’s a mistake. I’m a conservative’s conservative and I believe that my rights end when they begin to infringe upon yours. The greatest of all infringements is taking somebody’s life. So you have to have levels of protection to come with that. I get that some conservatives think that’s not consistent with gun rights, but I think it’s totally consistent within the blanket rights we get as Americans. Also, given my personal experience, extending the so-called Charleston loophole is something that makes sense. You know, in that case, the federal system failed to clear him within three days so he could automatically go purchase whatever. The shooter in question in Charleston might have been caught with a couple more days in the system. So I think it’s common sense to say, again, a couple more days is not a loss of my right.
20. Abortion remains a controversial topic in the U.S., especially surrounding the recent debate on late-term abortions. You have a pro-life voting record from your time in Congress. Do you support federal abortion restrictions or would you leave that to the states?
I believe that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land. It is a federal statute. I think that, ultimately, yes. I’d go back to federalism on that front, recognizing that a lot of the more difficult decisions that we need to make in the world of politics ought to be made with people making their voices heard in the electoral process at the local level. And I’ve always said that there ought to be exclusions for rape, incest, or life of the mother.