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Outgoing Reps. Mark Sanford and Carlos Curbelo on the political peril of disagreeing with your party

Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C. and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., are two Republican members of Congress who have sometimes broken with President Trump, and who won’t be returning to Capitol Hill in January. They sit down with Lisa Desjardins to discuss whether lawmakers are afraid to speak out when they disagree, where their party stands on issues of race and inclusion, and more.

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  • William Brangham:

    On Capitol Hill this month, dozens of lawmakers are packing up their offices, including more than 70 House Republicans who are either retiring or were voted out in this year's midterm elections.

    Our Lisa Desjardins sat down with a pair of those departing members, two very different types of Republicans, whose seats will now both be blue.

    Mark Sanford represents Charleston, South Carolina. He's a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus. And Carlos Curbelo is a moderate who represents Southern Florida.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You have both broken with the Republican president.

    I'm interested from both of you, who have been opposed and also been attacked by this president, how, privately, do other members of the Republican Conference here in Congress see this president? What are they saying in private?

  • Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla.:

    If you're committed to the truth, if you're committed to being sincere, that means you're going to disagree with people.

    And, sometimes, it means you're going to disagree with the president of your own party. Now, the problem is, these days, that's viewed as unacceptable. You either have to 100 percent with someone, or you're an enemy.

    And we're seeing that across our politics, by the way, not just in the Republican Party, not just with this president. And that's very dangerous.

  • Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C.:

    It is as polarized as I have ever seen it.

    I have been involved in politics for a while in South Carolina, a long while. And it is polarized as I have ever seen it. What he said about one camp vs. the other camp is real and dangerous.

    And so, when an issue is hot or popular, you can't push politicians away from the microphone. But when it's not — and this is one of those times that would fit in that category — people are reticent about speaking out.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Is there a courage issue with Republicans speaking up for what they think the truth is?

  • Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla.:

    I think there's a courage issue in the Congress. People are more and more risk-averse. People more and more are in this for career, not for service.

    So they treat this as a job that they have to protect, no matter what. And I think that distorts your ability to make sound decisions. It certainly makes it harder for you to be sincere and honest and transparent about what you think, about what you feel.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In just the past few days, we saw a jury convict a white nationalist of murder for when he drove into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville last year.

    That's the same event that President Trump blamed both sides for. Since then, in following these stories, I have talked to Republicans who say they think the idea of racism is overblown. Some think white nationalism doesn't exist.

    Where is your party on race and hatred right now?

  • Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C.:

    There are nut jobs out there in every part of the country and every part of the world.

    I don't think in any way the Republican Party endorses, supports, or condones the work of white nationalists or any other nutjob group out there.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But the question is, is the Republican Party doing enough to stand up to it and prevent it and stop it?

  • Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C.:

    Again, I have got my sphere of influence, and it only goes so far. All I know is, I have spoken out vociferously on this topic, inasmuch as it's arisen.

    And if you look at the healing that took place in Charleston, wherein, again, a nutjob white nationalist type came into a church and shut down a number of different parishioners, what he had intended for bad turned out to be an incredible embrace for good by the larger community, black, white and other, in the way that folks came together, saying, we're not going to tolerate this.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It's still largely a party of white men, especially those who are returning to Congress. Why is that?

  • Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla.:

    I mean, clearly, the party needs to do a better job to welcome in people from all over America who look like America looks.

    I'm a conservative-leaning Republican, Hispanic, so that earned me getting rejected by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. I applied to join, and they said I wasn't welcome there.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Because it's all Democrats, ostensibly, or it is…

  • Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla.:

    Right. Well…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Do you think that's what it was?

  • Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla.:

    Their bylaws say they're bipartisan. I think they didn't want to include me, because, for them, diversity is only important in some cases, not when it applies to them.

    But the truth is that there are a lot of Hispanic Americans who are center-right, who believe in the Republican Party's message of growth and prosperity and small, responsible government. A lot of these are people who fled big, oppressive governments.

    And yet they don't feel welcome by the party, because some, like the president and some of our colleagues, use rhetoric that is really offensive to some people, that diminishes people.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You have advocated for a carbon tax. You want action on climate change. That puts you in the minority in your party.

    Why is it, do you think, Republicans have really moved more away even from discussing climate change? Is this a policy debate? Is this politics? Is it both?

  • Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla.:

    This is an issue that, sadly, has been demagogued, like so many others.

    And a lot of Republicans, back when Al Gore adopted this cause, just assumed that they must be opposed to it. And some special interest groups seized on that to really widen the divide between Republicans and Democrats.

    What I have tried to do here in the Congress over the last four years is undo that process and just have a rational conversation. Let's look at the facts. Let's look at the science.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This past Congress passed two of the largest spending bills in history. Republicans used to be the party that was all about cutting the deficit.

    As a deficit hawk, what has happened to the Republican Party on this issue?

  • Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C.:

    I think the president's been particularly destructive on this issue when, during the presidential primaries, he basically said, we're not going to deal with entitlements, which is the real driver of spending at the — at the federal level.

    And when people see an out, they see that there's not going to be any presidential support, they leave it alone, because they know it's a political impossibility at that point.

    We do so at our own peril. I believe that we're walking our way toward the largest financial crisis in the history of our country. I think it will parallel the Great Depression.

  • Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla.:

    Well, and here's another issue where I think there's a lack of honesty in politics.

    The truth is, from what I can tell and from my time here, that the party that cares about deficits and debt is the minority party, no matter which one it might be.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You have talked a lot about truth and honesty.

    Honestly, is this it for politics for the two of you?

  • Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C.:

    If there's ever a guy who has learned never to say never, it's me.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C.:

    I have been something of a Lazarus, been dead and over, dead and over, dead and over. But I believe so, is the answer to your question.

  • Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla.:

    I think there will be another political chapter in my life. I don't know when it will be. But I do — I do sense that.

    I have it in me. I have the passion for it, the love for it. And even now, as a private citizen, I'm going to continue advocating for the issues that are important to me, whether it's climate, immigration, this issue of sustainable government and the debt.

    So I will — I will be involved. I will lose my vote, but I won't lose my voice.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We will stay tuned.

    Congressman Carlos Curbelo, Congressman Mark Sanford, thank you very much.

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