Former SC Governor & US Congressman Says National Debt Single Biggest Issue Facing America
By: Jeff Walker, Features Writer
Perhaps no time in American history has the country been as divided as we are in 2019. Whether you're conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, the United States of America appears to be anything but united. The proliferation of 24 hour news cycles, social media, and bickering in Washington, D.C. has pushed American politics to a breaking point.
It doesn't seem to matter if you're a politician from the donkey or the elephant party, the only thing that matters is that you're on opposite sides, and like the Hatfield's and the McCoy's, there is no way you're going to agree or even find common ground. The system has been in place for decades now. Whoever is in the Oval Office, the opposing political party will butt heads with the POTUS.
The petty war has been more front and center since Donald Trump was sworn in. Love him or hate him, he is president of the United States. He has his core following, and he has those who despise him. Now with impeachment talks all the daily water cooler talk, there are three Republicans who want to challenge the incumbent president, including the Lowcountry's own Mark Sanford.
Over slices of pizza at Orlando's on Daniel Island, I sat down with our former governor and US congressman. When we met, Sanford had just returned from NYC making appearances on CNN and Comedy Central's The Daily Show - "I'm making the rounds wherever I can get my message out."
The obvious question is why he feels compelled to run, and what is his message. "There are a couple of different 'whys'. The primary reason is I think we are going over the cliff financially, and nobody is talking about it. On the Democratic side you have this debate 'more versus more', and zero conversation on the debt, the deficit, and spending. And on the Republican side there's no conversation at all."
Sanford adds, "Every four years we have an opportunity to have a debate on what we value, where we are, and where we want to go as a country. The cornerstone of the Republican Party used to be about economy, and frankly, I don't see us focused on it."
Understandably, Sanford realizes his odds at winning the party's nomination is far-fetched. "It sounds preposterous at many different levels, but over the past several months I've had people tell me I should run, and I was like I'm not sure. But I watched that first set of Democratic debates, and I said I'll give it a go and see where it takes me."
Traditionally, history has not been kind to anyone in the same party running against the incumbent, a fact Sanford knows all to well. "Look at the last five and none of them made it." He sees it as an uphill battle. "Totally, but that doesn't mean we can't elevate the conversation about the deficit, our trade policies, and spending. But the most important one to me is our national debt."
Will his taking part in the election weaken the Republican Party? "I don't think so. Many people make that argument. I make the counter argument which is, there are a lot of football teams scrimmaging across South Carolina for games on Friday night (high school). None of those coaches or teams say 'hey we're going to wait for the championship'. We're not going to play any games or have practices until the championship. We're just gonna play it safe."
Rather Sanford sees his participation as an American right of passage. "The American way is competition. I did my graduate work at the University of Virginia. They did a case study I believe in, a method where you throw an idea out there and you debate it for 45 minutes. At the end of the debate you had a better idea of how to deal with a situation, simply because you had the debate, and exchange of ideas."
The downside for the Republican side is clear for Sanford. "The Democratic side is going to get a tremendous amount of air time based on the national debate they're having. All the things that sound good like free health care, free college, immigration and more. With no conversation on the republican side, it's just the rhetoric the democrats are spinning, and come the general election it's going to be more versus more."
He sees only a positive in running against the incumbent. "I think it makes the party (GOP) stronger, it makes the President stronger heading into the general election, rather than running unopposed, and not talking about what I'm proposing."
While Trump has made some progress, Sanford feels he's falling short when it comes to the debt. "I believe his judicial appointments have been one of his strong points. However I believe he's doing the opposite he said he'd do on debt and spending. He said I'll eliminate the debt over the eight years I (Trump) might be in office. That's what he promised. Instead he signed a bill that added a third of a trillion to the debt. His own budget, not a democratic budget, but his proposes raising the debt by nine trillion dollars. We simply cannot support such increases."
With the national debt number well in the trillions, an amount most Americans can't wrap their heads around, how does Sanford rationalize the process? "The question isn't can we pay it down. It's more can we stabilize the debt. I've never argued we can pay down the debt, but more so can we stabilize our spending, and over time pay down the debt. It's like when you have a $200K mortgage, eventually you pay it down and off. Reverse the number, rather than continue to see it continue to skyrocket."
What does Sanford see as the greatest threat to American society today? "I'll repeat what Mike Mullen, a retired admiral in the US Navy and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said. When posed the same question he said it's not the Taliban, the Russians, or the Chinese. His answer was the American debt. I think he's right. And he has far more authority given his position and rank. We have conversations about immigration, health care, and free this and that, but no one is talking about the debt. That's going to hurt us because we're walking into a real financial storm."
Trying to rationalize why the divide between the parties has reached a pinnacle, and presents as more of a circus than politicians working in unison, Sanford offers this. "Part of it's structural. Part of it is the way congressional districts are designed. Politicians have to play to their constituents or one audience which leads to extremes. A big part of it is the proliferation of media outlets. The person who is loudest and wildest gets more air time, and those who are not get none at all."
How does that correlate to Donald Trump? "Trump is a showman. He's a master provocateur, and sales person who knows how to work the media." It was his straight forward approach and non-political background that caused many to vote for Trump. "I get that. The question now is, are we going to get the real business guy. There is a lot of noise on a lot of different issues, but which are the ones that will really impact our society. Where we go on spending drives our economy."
Why don't the Democrats running for president subscribe to Sanford's conversation? "It's insane. Who's paying for it? I think it's important we have some kind of debate on specific issues, but the debt needs to be on the table as well. I get that it's a long shot, but they need to inject spending and our national debt into their debates."
America in the 21st century is much different than we were two or three decades ago. Does Sanford agree we are overly politically correct in society? "Everyone grabs a phrase and runs with it. They don't look at the content or what people are trying to say. When people react quickly and don't do their homework it's easy for situations to get of hand."
Will Sanford's past history a decade ago, be fodder for Trump and others trying to diminish his campaign? "What I think is we all have history. Mine is out there and it's well chronicled. But if you learn from your history and try to walk the path of fundamental Christianity, which is forgiveness than hopefully you recover."
Sanford is thankful to those who looked beyond his shortcomings. "After the firestorm burned down, which was a big upheaval, many in South Carolina who knew me best came up to me and said 'we know you and we trust you, and we'll give you a second chance. Those same people sent me to the United States Congress. That was very humbling for me. I do have regret which provides me empathy toward others. In contrast to the president he said he has no regrets. I don't understand how you walk this mystery of life, and not end up with regrets."
What would an America under President Sanford look like? "Hopefully there's a cause for a better civil society. What I mean is free markets, individuals making decision in the markets. My vision would be a smaller federal government and a more functional federal government. I did that as South Carolina governor and I'd bring that to Washington. We need to scale back big government. A leaner and more efficient government would be my goal if I were the president." Where does Sanford stand on building our border wall. "I'm for it."
If Sanford could do one thing to unite the country what would it be? "That's a hard one to wrap my head around. But we're running rampant, and if we don't scale back we're going over a cliff. There are three things that will kill civilization. First unsustainable spending. The other is decay of institutions similar to that of the Roman Empire. They lost their balance of power. The last one is civility and tone. If people stop listening to each other, than things just won't work. It's very dangerous."
How has Sanford witnessed the divide first hand? "It's incumbent on Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and non voters to step away from the edge and say 'let's look at the way we treat our neighbor.' I witnessed it during the town halls I conducted last year. I'd have a thousand people show up, and there would be so much screaming and shouting for the first hour. It was unproductive to say the least. We have opposing views, but lets discuss them civilly and with rationale."
While Sanford has a few friends in the Democratic Party, overall he feels they are on the wrong path. "In my view yes. I've been very public about it. They believe the conversation is about issues. All well and good. But none are talking about our debt. Warren and Sanders are rallying the cry for free everything, but can't seem to bring up anything about our debt problem. They offer up 20 and 30 trillion dollar programs, and I'm like what."
Sanford wants Americans and voters to realize he's not running as some kind of national joke. "It's a process. If you're running a smart campaign it's very challenging. What I see as my outcome is to have the conversation." Sanford surely wants to debate Trump. "Absolutely. We need to have a national debate on where our country is going financially." He has an end goal for the presidential race. "My running for office is simply a microphone for me getting the word out."
What are Trumps flaws? "I think he's not addressing the issues that I have in mind. I think we all need to have a conversation to elevate the issues. What does the republican brand stand for? Have we strayed from the path. I think Trump's damaging the brand. There's one thing about moving ahead on tariffs and where are we going on free trade. We really need to look inward."
A particular case in point? "When he (Trump) says Jerome Powell the Chairman of the Federal Reserve is an enemy of the state that's pushing it. What I would say is 'we don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water'. Trump was brought in to cause some upheaval in the political system. I get why people voted for him. But now we have to be careful. We need balance, and even the president needs to be a bit more civil."
Why does Sanford believe he's the man? "I've learned from my mistakes, and I've always been a fiscal leader." To make noise and promote his agenda Sanford knows he needs help. "I can't do it on my own. Go to my website and see what I'm talking about. There are many who agree with me. If we don't rein in our spending we're headed over a dangerous financial cliff. The economy will eventually crash and burn. That's why I'm in the race, for the financial future of our country."