There’s a little bit of a Gary Cooper quality to former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford (R). Starting off a phone interview Thursday, I asked him what the reaction in his home state has been to his recently announced presidential campaign. “Depends who you talk to,” he said. What have the first few days been like? “Busy.”
Get him going on a policy discussion, however, and Sanford has plenty to say. On the debt and deficit, he said he’s surprised it hasn’t come up in the Democratic debates and Republicans sure aren’t talking about it. “First, we need to recognize we have a problem.” He said raising the issue is a test: “Can we inject this into the political bloodstream?” Where would he attack the problem? “You have to look at entitlements,” he said. “Like Willie Sutton, that’s where the money is.” He cautioned that eliminating “waste, fraud and abuse” isn’t going to cut it. I asked him if, within the context of entitlement reform, he’d consider measures such as raising the cap on wages subject to Social Security. “I think you have to look at the whole basket,” he said. He added, “Everybody’s got to sacrifice.”
Turning to corruption and self-dealing, Sanford said, “This president is on steroids on a whole bunch of things.” He noted that whatever you thought of the Bush family, they “didn’t push emoluments to the edge” like President Trump does. “We’re setting bad precedent,” he warned. He ticked off a list of some recent revelations — the vice president “weirdly” picking to stay at a Trump property in Ireland, possible diversion of Air Force crew so that the crew lodges at Trump’s Scottish resort. “I think it has become corrosive,” he said. There may be a need for new laws, but Sanford is convinced that what we need is a change of president.
He dubbed the Taliban invitation “weird” and “striking” but noted that this is part of a bigger problem for the president. He pointed to North Korea negotiations. Trump declared we’d open conversations. “What do we have to show for it? Nothing.” We pull out of the Iran deal. Sanford asked, “Okay, but what comes next?” He said bluntly, “Too often, the administration is run by optics of a reality show.” He joked that governing should be “boring, painful and detailed,” not a made-for-TV affair. He recalled a meeting with Vice President Pence and Republican lawmakers on health care. Members were trying to figure out what Trump wanted. “The president just wanted a deal.” The same was the case on the tax bill. “Kevin [McCarthy] and the speaker drove this through the legislative process.” Trump simply wanted a bill. “It’s optics over substance,” he observed.
On trade, Sanford has been outspoken in his disagreement with Trump’s tariff war. He observed that the U.S. economy has always benefited because “there was a degree of certainty.” He added that “uncertainty and instability” are the hallmarks of a third-world country. He’s concerned the businesses and farmers won’t be able to gain back market share after this is over. Whether it is for the BMW plant or the Boeing assembly site in South Carolina, supply chains “reach around the world,” he pointed out. It’s not easy to relocate those.
On climate change, he suspects that, in the past, Republican in deep-red states didn’t have to worry about the effects that a low-lying, coastal state such as South Carolina does. I asked if, now that extreme weather has come to the Midwest and Texas, Republicans might start to address the problem. “I suspect that’s right,” he said.
South Carolina’s Republican Party decided last week to cancel its 2020 presidential primary. Sanford said, “It clearly contradicts the bylaws of the South Carolina Republican Party.” His campaign “is looking into” whether some kind of legal change is possible. He continued, “The real question is ‘Why?’” It’s just common-sense politics, he said: “If you have 90 percent support and a chance to stack up a win, you do it.” From his vantage point, somebody on the Trump side must be looking at numbers showing Trump’s support is “a mile wide and an inch deep." Rather than face a two-term governor and a former congressman, he suggested, “Someone said, ‘Turn it off.’”
I would say Sanford is a throwback to a different era in which Republicans cared about fiscal sobriety, good governance, strategic foreign policy planning and ethics — but it was only three years ago that more than a dozen candidates of that ilk lost to Trump. It may seem like it has been a decade, but the “corrosive” effect of Trump has lasted only a few years. Sanford is betting there is still an appetite for the sober, incrementalist, courteous style of governance in the GOP. I’d like to think it’s still there, but I have grave doubts.