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Mark Sanford on why he’s fighting to define the Republican Party

Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford said Wednesday he began his longshot campaign to challenge President Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination to reopen a debate about what it means to be a Republican. 

“The Republican Party is not exactly the Republican Party that I invested a lot of years of my life into,” Sanford told PBS NewsHour’s anchor and managing editor, Judy Woodruff. “Is this really the direction we want to go?” 

Sanford, who made his name in Congress as a fiscal hawk, is centering his campaign on traditional Republican positions of curbing excess government spending and tackling rising national debt, which he said has “gone out of control in Washington.” 

The former Lowcountry congressman acknowledged that reducing a deficit of more than $22 trillion would mean unpopular changes to Social Security and Medicare but argued that confronting the fiscal crisis head-on is the only way to avoid financial catastrophe. 

“We are at a tipping point,” Sanford warned. Without action, he said, “the financial markets will bring us back to reality, and it’ll be bruising to every one of us.” 

Sanford is the third Republican candidate taking on Trump for the nomination, joining former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh and former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld. But to win, all three insurgent candidates would have to overcome Trump’s overwhelming support among Republican voters. In the most recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll, President Trump received an 87% approval rating from Republicans. 

More highlights from the interview:

  • On trade: “You start a trade war, you don’t know exactly where it ends,” Sanford said. He called President Trump’s strategy to impose tariffs on Chinese goods “mistaken,” arguing that the tariffs slow national economic growth and hurt American consumers.  
  • On climate change: “I believe in science,” Sanford stated when asked if he would echo the Trump administration’s skepticism of climate science. “It is inconceivable to me that you believe in the miracles of modern medicine and what science can do in healing the human body, but don’t believe in science outside of the body as it relates to the larger ecosystem that we live in as human beings,” Sanford added.
  • On North Korea: Sanford said, as president, he would not meet with Chairman Kim Jong Un, breaking with the Trump administration’s strategy on North Korea. “[Chairman Kim] has proven himself an awfully bad actor on the world stage,” Sanford said, adding that the North Korean government “needs to do some things that show verification before we step out in trusting them and meeting with them.”


Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To many, Donald Trump is reshaping the Republican Party, but there are some Republicans who disagree with his leadership and policies enough to try to challenge him for the presidency.

    Mark Sanford is one. The former South Carolina congressman and governor announced this week he's running for the Republican nomination for president, making him the third in his party to do so.

    And he joins me now.

    Mark Sanford, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    So, why challenge a president who is polling at 87 percent favorability in his own party?

  • Mark Sanford:

    Because I think we need to have a conversation about what it means to be a Republican these days.

    I think that certain tenets of what the Republican Party traditionally stood for have been lost of late. And I think that, at a grassroots level, there are a lot of people out there that I think still believe in those things.

    Take, for instance, this issue of spending and debt and deficits. They have gone out of control in Washington. The president said: If I get elected, I will completely eliminate that debt over the eight years that I might be in office.

    In fact, the numbers have gone in the opposite direction. I think it's worth a conversation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I want to ask you about that. I mean, you're making that a centerpiece. At least, that's what you're talking about this week.

    But just how far are you prepared to go? Are you prepared to talk about cuts in Social — the entitlement programs, so-called, Social Security, Medicare, even tax increases? How far are you prepared to go?

  • Mark Sanford:

    To go all the way in simply telling the truth.

    I think that, you know, people would acknowledge that we're on an unsustainable path. I think there's a disconnect between the way in which people gather around the family kitchen and the watercooler and the business table, and very carefully and meticulously going through their budgets at the business or individual level.

    And they see the numbers and they say, you know, they don't add up. And if nobody else is worried about it, I guess I'm not worried about it either.

    And so we have been lulled into this sense of, it will go away on its own, when, in fact, that's not case. Erskine Bowles, was one of the co-chairs of the Bowles-Simpson report, said this at the end of it. He said, we're walking away from the most predictable financial crisis in the history of man.

    And I think we're now at that the tipping point, if you look at the way we're projected to run deficits over the next 10 years, if you look at where we are on debt, if you look at the spending that accompanies both, we are at a tipping point.

    And so either we go out and confront truth and, indeed, deal with entitlements and other, or we pretend it is going to go away, which it never does, and as a consequence the financial markets will bring us back to reality, and it will be bruising for every one of us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you think you can get people to care about this, to vote for this, when there's no evidence right now that there's any kind of consensus, even among Republicans, who used to be — it used to the party of getting spending down.

  • Mark Sanford:

    Yes, it was, again, a cornerstone, as were many other things.

    The Republican Party is not exactly the Republican Party that I invested a lot of years of my life into. But it is what it is, which makes it that much more important to say, is this really the direction that we want to go?

    I mean, take, for instance, just the congressional district that I used to represent here…

  • Mark Sanford:

    … of South Carolina.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I…

  • Mark Sanford:

    I'm sorry. You were about to say something?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    No, go ahead. I just want to say, I have got a couple of other issues I want to ask you about.

  • Mark Sanford:

    OK. OK.

    But take that district. It went Democratic for the first time in 50 years, in large part simply because of the president's tone. Working women, suburban women, young millennials turned out in droves. And, as a consequence, the district went a different direction.

    I think it's time to have a real conversation about where we're going as a party.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to ask you very quickly about a few other issues.

    One is climate change. Are you with the president in his skepticism about it?

  • Mark Sanford:

    I'm not. I believe in science.

    It is inconceivable to me that you could say, I believe in the miracles of modern medicine and what science can do in healing the human body, but I don't believe in science outside of the body as it relates the larger, you know, ecosystem that we live in as human beings.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Immigration, the president's been very tough on this issue. He wants a border wall. You have said you agree with that.

    What about the policy of family separation, tighter asylum rules, laws? Where are you on that?

  • Mark Sanford:

    I agree with much of that.

    I mean, I think that, inasmuch as asylum is abused, and not for true asylum, we have a problem, and it ought to be tightened up. I don't agree with the idea of separating families, simply because, you know, you can be tough on immigration, but also believe in the sanctity of the family unit.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Foreign policy. Would you talk to the leader of North Korea?

  • Mark Sanford:

    You know, I don't think so.

    I mean, I think he's proven himself an awfully bad actor on the world stage. I was in Congress at the time that, you know, the Clinton administration, in essence, struck a deal with North Korea, and the net-net of that deal was, you know, we sent a lot of money their way, and we got nothing in result.

    I don't see this movie ending up much differently. I think it falls more carefully on the lines of trust, but verify, what Reagan talked about. And they need to do some things that show verification before we step out in trusting them and meeting with them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And do you agree with President Trump's policy on trade toward China, the tariffs?

  • Mark Sanford:

    I think that, you know, as late as this last Friday, The Wall Street Journal had an article talking about how there had been a full percentage point drop in our growth in this country as a result of trade uncertainty.

    I think the way that he has approached it has been mistaken. I think it is hurting the American consumer. You look at about $1,000 of cost per household that's calculated now in what's coming our way, and it's going to get worse.

    And if we don't watch out, we're going to go the direction of Smoot-Hawley tariffs of the 1930s, where world trade declined by two-thirds. You start a trade war, you don't know exactly where it ends. I think we're, again, not approaching this in the right direction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How would your White House, if you're elected, be run differently from this White House under President Trump?

  • Mark Sanford:

    I was a chief executive of a state for eight years of my life.

    And what I saw in that experience is, it's incredibly important that there be predictability from the executive branch. It allows forces for you and against you to line up, and there is at least a battle line drawn, where you can have a real debate on where you want to go next as a state, where you want to go next as a country.

    What we have more of is sort of chaos theory. One day, it's here, the next day, it's here, the next day, it's here. And, as a consequence, what happens is exactly what we're seeing in trade, wherein business investment has been frozen up because people don't know what comes next.

    You're not going to invest in that kind of environment. And the same is true of political decisions. They're not made because nobody knows exactly what's going to happen next. Am I really going to take a stand as a Republican? Well, he may or may not have my back.

    It's important there be predictability out of the White House.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, the president has made some very cutting personal comments about you, Mark Sanford. He's referred to your leaving the office, how you left the office of governor, and a number of other things.

    The chairman of…

  • Mark Sanford:

    Well, no, let's be clear. I didn't…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Go ahead. Yes.

  • Mark Sanford:

    Go ahead. I'm sorry.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Mark Sanford:

    No, go ahead. Yes, ma'am.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I was just going to say, the chairman of the Republican Party in South Carolina has called your candidacy a vanity project.

    You're not getting a lot of support in your home state. They have canceled the Republican primary in your home state of South Carolina. How do you — I mean, when your home folks are not behind you, how do you have a candidacy?

  • Mark Sanford:

    There's a big difference between political folks and home folks.

    And I have had the honor of getting to know all kinds of folks from across South Carolina over my long number of years, both in Congress and the governorship. And there is a decided difference between the political body and regular people in our state.

    I think what this should tell us is, wait a minute. Somebody in the Trump Organization is looking at the numbers and saying, my support is a mile wide, but an inch deep, because if you have a chance to pick up supposedly a 90 percent win in the first-in-the-South primary, you take it, because it signals other things in primaries that will follow.

    Instead, they canceled that primary in South Carolina, which is, again, beyond perplexing.

    And so I would simply say, I think it begs much more of the question, why are they doing this, and begs that much more of the question of the need for a debate in the Republican Party on where we go next.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Sanford, a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, thank you.

  • Mark Sanford:

    Yes, ma'am.

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