Q&A: Utah Sen. Mitt Romney talks Iran, gun control and the future of the Republican Party
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney recently sat down with the Deseret News editorial board to give an update on his service and answer questions.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: How are you? Do you enjoy being a senator?
Mitt Romney: I’m good. Thank you. Everyone told me I would hate it. I don’t. I like it. They said I’d hate it because, you know, I’ve been an executive in the business world and then a governor. And as an executive you get a lot of stuff done. But the truth is that I worked with legislators before. I went in with low expectations in terms of moving things very quickly. And I’m working on things I care about. And I’ve got responsibilities of significance.
I am the fifth-ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, on the Republican side. And that puts me ahead of people who are much more senior than me, like Lindsey Graham, Rob Portman and so forth. So I am the chairman of the subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and the subcontinent. So from Marrakech to Bangladesh, I have responsibility for policies related to those areas, at least from a Senate standpoint. So I travel there, I spend time with representatives of those governments and try to understand their issues and meet with members of the administration to hopefully influence policy that’s in there.
DN: What is President Trump’s foreign policy? Could you describe it?
MR: I would let the administration take that effort. I would not try and describe, myself. Other than to describe my own foreign policy, which is able to be boiled down into a very simple sentence. I want to make America stronger. And that means domestically to strengthen our balance sheet, to strengthen commitment to certain, our values. Internationally it means to strengthen our alliances with others, to link more tightly with others, to strengthen our military connections with others. And the president has a different point of view on some of those things than I do. But I’ll let the administration describe that.
I want to make America stronger. And that means domestically to strengthen our balance sheet, to strengthen commitment to certain, our values.
DN: Should we be leaving Afghanistan?
MR: At some point, yes. And entirely leaving, I would be more inclined to keep a presence there to try and maintain some stability in Afghanistan, to make sure that the agreements that are reached with the Taliban and with the Afghani government, that those agreements are honored. Our presence tends to keep bad things from happening. And we care very deeply about, not only what’s happening for the Afghan people and the great sacrifice that has been paid by Afghanis — as well as by Americans who provide for the Afghan people and for the freedom — but also to prevent Afghanistan from becoming once again a place where there’s experimentation and potential creation of entities that would attack us and our friends and allies. So the best way to do that, I think, is to maintain some presence.
DN: Would you draw down that presence?
MR: I would anticipate that we’re going to continue to draw down. I think the lesson we can draw from Afghanistan, one of the lessons we can draw from our experience in Afghanistan, is that people have to win their own freedom. And we can’t win it for them. We can help them in that process. But it is up to the people of the nation that wants freedom to win that freedom. And we’ve been there a long, long, long time. And there has not been a great deal of progress over the past several years in the effort to secure the country. And now with a recent recent attack by ISIS, one shakes one’s head and says “Oh, my goodness, this just continues to be a very dangerous and unpredictable place.”
DN: What should we be doing right now with Iran? Did you support what President Barack Obama did with the Iran deal? Do you support unwinding it?
MR: I did not support what President Obama did. I actually wrote an op-ed at the time saying that I think he and Secretary Kerry were making a big mistake by signing an agreement that allowed Iran to have a nuclear weapon at some point. The only solution that I thought was acceptable was a permanent agreement on the part of Iran to never be a nuclear nation. And that is not what we agreed to. And we don’t have that today. And so the president said, all right, we’re going to put in place sanctions, we’re going to go back to a sanction regime and put pressure on the Iranian government to try and get them to that point.
I wondered how effective our sanctions would be, whether our sanctions alone, if the Europeans didn’t join in, would be sufficient to put a lot of pressure on Iran. I didn’t go out and say I was against it or for it. But I think the president has shown that actually U.S. sanctions alone are pretty darn powerful.
DN: You’ve said there is little interest among your colleagues in cutting deficits. Can you explain?
MR: There are several who share my point of view on both sides of the aisle. By and large, there’s not much talk about it. You know, when I go around and talk to other senators, you know, what are your priorities, debt and deficit doesn’t bubble to the top, with a few exceptions. And some, I won’t mention any names, but some of the people who were part of the Bowles-Simpson process have said, “we tried, we worked, we pushed and then at the 11th hour we couldn’t get it across the finish line.” And they’re just, I won’t say defeatist, but they’re tired. And they think it’s very difficult to get across the line unless you have a lot of pressure pushing for it. And there’s not a lot of pressure from the White House these days, as you know. Larry Kudlow the other day basically said, look, we don’t really have a debt problem. We’re happy with where we are. You know, that is not conducive in the minds of some senators to actually getting something done. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to give up on it.
DN: Have you heard of Modern Monetary Theory? Interest rates are so low, the theory goes, and borrowing is so cheap, that interest rates and inflation can be controlled through taxing, making deficits irrelevant. It seems to be gathering more steam right now.
MR: Yeah, I understand that argument. And the challenge is this — a deficit, of course, turns into debt. Your annual deficit becomes part of your annual debt. If your annual debt is growing faster than the GDP, then you’re creating a setting where debt to GDP ratio keeps going up and up and up and up. At some point, you get above 100% of debt to GDP. This gets to be a bit of a crisis proportionate and people around the world wonder, “are you going to be able to pay it back? Or will you pay it back with dollars that have no value, inflated dollars?” And so they start demanding higher interest rates. ...
And so I look at it and say, now is the time to deal with it in such a way that it doesn’t become a backbreaking burden when we finally address it. So what do I mean by that? Well, of our federal spending, two thirds is on entitlements, two thirds is automatic. Two thirds is not voted on by Congress every year. Two thirds is Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, interest and a few other little mandate programs where there’s no vote. Two thirds. Only one third is part of the so-called federal budget. We keep on talking about, you know, we’re going to cut the federal spending. We’re only talking about the one third. There are two thirds we don’t even talk about. But it’s the two thirds that are growing so fast. They’re going much faster than the economy, they’re the ones we have to deal with, ultimately.
DN: What about on the revenue side?
MR: On the revenue side, I still believe that we had to reduce the corporate tax rate. That financially for our country, having a tax rate on corporations substantially higher than the global tax rate on corporations, meant that companies would be fleeing, jobs would flee. And it would not be good economically for us, we’d lose tax revenue here, and we’d lose jobs here. So getting our tax rate in line with other nations I think made sense. Cutting taxes for high-income people — I think it’s a mistake. And I think it’s a mistake primarily from the basis of fairness. But I think that we err when we look to find ways for the top 1% to get a tax break. And when I was running for president I indicated that if I became president, the top 1% would not pay a smaller share of the tax burden under my plan. When it’s all said and done, guys, I will make sure the top 1% does not pay a smaller share of the tax burden.
When it’s all said and done, guys, I will make sure the top 1% does not pay a smaller share of the tax burden.
DN: So the trickle-down economics theory — the Ronald Reagan plan — is abandoned. That didn’t work?
RM: There’s no question that lower taxes, putting more money in the hands of the American people, is stimulative. It makes a stronger economy. But at the same time, in my view, the 1% getting tax breaks of a disproportionate nature doesn’t make sense on a fairness basis.
DN: What would it take for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to say, yes, this is a big issue? You’ve gone back there and identified this problem. You campaigned on it. And then what?
MR: Here’s the challenge, which is that we can close government, we can rail about spending, but we’re typically only talking about the one third. The one third that’s not the entitlements. Because when we have these big budget fights, and when we close government, it’s all about spending on the one third, but it’s the two thirds that’s going so fast. We don’t even talk about that. And so I’m working with another Democratic senator right now, who we’ll see whether I can get him on board to come up together with a joint proposal to go after our entitlements and to find ways to make them permanently solvent.
DN: Does the 2017 tax cut need to be revisited given what you said about giving tax breaks to the very wealthy?
MR: It will come up again. It comes up naturally because it expires, some portions of the tax bill expire. And you know, my inclination is to provide relief to middle income taxpayers, but not to reduce taxes for high taxpayers.
DN: Why wait for the expiration?
MR: Well, part of it is just the reality, which is that it’s not going to get changed anytime soon until the expiration comes up. And then Republicans are going to say, let’s extend it permanently, and Democrats will say, let’s get rid of it all together. And then some other people will say, maybe there are parts we’ll keep and parts we shouldn’t.
DN: Are you part of that other group?
MR: I would be inclined to look at that very closely.
DN: You mentioned that you’re trying to work with Democrats. Can you tell us which Democrats those are?
MR: I won’t tell you which one it is on each issue. But there are a number of people that I work with on a regular basis and have been in exchange with. Chris Coons, for instance, of Delaware. Mark Warner. Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona. Martha McSally from Arizona. It’s actually a pretty long list. You’d be surprised. Chuck Schumer and I have been going back and forth to see if we can’t find some common ground on a couple of things. Dick Durbin, who’s as partisan a Democrat as you’ll see, and I worked on matters related to the lands bill that finally got passed. But we had to go around and around because there were some things that came up at the last minute that we wanted to do and there was some opposition, but we were able to get something done.
DN: Were you working with Chuck Schumer on background checks for gun control?
MR: There has not been any real work, that’s involved me at least, on gun legislation so far this year. I presume some of that will come up. It’s on our side of the aisle that there’s been some discussion. I just spoke with Pat Toomey last week; he has a piece of legislation on universal background checks for commercial weapons sales. He proposed it several years ago, and it continues to be pushed. And he’s working on that. And he and I shared some thoughts about that. So there’s discussion about that going on. But so far, prior to the most tragic recent shootings, that has not been something which I’ve seen legislation on.
DN: After the recent shootings, we called for a 21-day challenge to get back to Washington, back from recess and deal with this issue. Nancy Pelosi resisted the call to convene the House but said she was open to it. Mitch McConnell has resisted calls to bring the Senate back together. Did you ask him to get everyone back and deal with this?
MR: No. I’ll tell you why. One is many of us are doing things, constituent services related, gathering information from the people we represent. I’ll be having seven town meetings and be visiting different parts of the state. A number of people are going to foreign capitals and meeting on foreign policy issues. So it’s not that people aren’t doing something, they are. That’s part one.
Part two is that if you want to have a piece of legislation on a highly partisan issue move along in Washington, it’s four people in a room. Right? You don’t need 535 people to come together, because they’re going to be sitting around going, OK, what’s going on? And they have no involvement in the process at all. It’s a small group of people, it may be a committee, it may be someone that the majority or minority leader appoint to say, Hey, why don’t you guys work on this? But it’s typically a very small number of people. And those people, for instance — I mentioned Pat Toomey. He’s working right now on this, but he’s doing it by touching bases with Republicans and Democrats, one by one. I don’t know how many he’s touched, but he touched me. And I talked about my concerns, my concerns for instance, on background checks. I was concerned about rural Utah. And if there was a sale done in rural Utah and they had to get a background check, it might have to go a long, long way to get to a place that had the capacity to do that kind of background check.
DN: You were on the radio previously and talked about background checks.
MR: I think background checks are probably best handled at the federal level. Just because we have the database, we have who was in the military and who’s been discharged honorably, and so forth. And making that system work better probably is best done at the federal level.
I think background checks are probably best handled at the federal level. Just because we have the database, we have who was in the military and who’s been discharged honorably, and so forth.
I think school issues, gun legislation ought to be done at the state level. Part of this is the practicality of it. States have far more capacity to find agreement across the political divide, to actually get stuff done. States are passing legislation all the time. The federal government is much, much slower.
DN: Should an assault weapons ban be state by state?
MR: Absolutely. If a state wants to have an assault weapon ban, let the state have it. We had one in Massachusetts, it was agreed to by, as I said, pro- and anti-gun folks. And the wisdom of that is going to be up to the legislators in each state, the people of each state. You have to have public support for these things as well. But let me tell you, the reality is, if you’re someone who’s in favor of an assault weapon ban, if that’s something you favor, you can be sure it’s never going to happen in Washington. It’s only going to happen at the state level. That’s just the reality. So, you know, hoping that Washington will deal with something where there’s not consensus on the part of the nation, it’s just not going to happen, and the nation is enormously divided on this issue.
DN: They’re not divided on the issue of children being shot, right?
MR: Absolutely not. And then the question is, what do you do? And, you know, the president says it’s a mental health issue. Well, are we going to eliminate mental health problems? No. So what can we do? And the one thing we can do at the federal level, and that I think can get done at the federal level, is universal background checks. And then at the state level, school safety strikes me as an area that state legislators can take on and can say, what’s the best way? Making a school safe in New York City is very different than making a school safe in Circleville, Utah. There are 35,000 police officers in New York City. There are three police officers that are available for Circleville. The whole county has three police officers. So it’s a very different approach in different places.
DN: Do you think we’ll have background check legislation by Christmas?
MR: I can’t possibly predict what my colleagues would do. I would be in favor. I’m not the person, I’m not the president — I tried and didn’t get that job. Nor am I the majority leader. But I am in favor of background checks, generally. I’d have to look at the specifics to make sure that the way it would be implemented would be consistent with the needs of all of our citizens.
DN: It’s not just the mass shootings. If you do background checks, you might be saving a domestic situation. You might be helping prevent a suicide. Can you get a win for both Democrats and Republicans in this space?
MR: I’m a background check guy, I agree with you. What I can’t tell you is what the other Republicans and Democrats will do on that front. And people say it’s the NRA. I don’t know that I can speak for all my colleagues. But it’s the voters. It’s not just the NRA, it’s the voters. And the No. 1 issue that I faced when I was running for Senate here was, what are you going to do on gun laws? And will you commit on gun law?
The No. 1 issue that I faced when I was running for Senate here was, what are you going to do on gun laws? And will you commit on gun law?
And I said, Look, there are two things that I’ll do that relate to gun laws at the federal level that I think makes sense at the federal level: One is to make bump stocks illegal. And No. 2 is to improve our background check capacity. Those are the two things I think should be at the federal level. But each of these legislators has made promises to their constituents. And it’s not promises to the NRA. I mean, it’s everyday voters. This is a very, very passionate issue for many, many people.
2020 election and the future of the Republican Party
DN: Let’s turn to politics for a minute. Mark Sanford, a former representative, is seriously considering a primary challenge to President Trump. Do you think Republicans should have different choices than President Trump in this election?
MR: I think primaries are good thing. I always enjoy seeing a good primary fight. I think it makes the campaign stronger and sharper, and the candidates better. At the same time, I think it is very, very unlikely, almost impossible for anyone other than President Trump to be the nominee of the Republican Party in 2020.
DN: Do you support President Trump as the nominee?
MR: I’m probably not going to endorse anybody in the 2020 race. But if somebody wants to primary, fine, do your best, but (Trump) will be the Republican nominee. I happen to think that he’s likely to win reelection, in part because the economy is doing well. And I think the Democrats will select someone who does not represent the mainstream of American thought — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren. And I think when faced with that prospect, the president has a better shot and will probably get reelected.
DN: We sat down with former Sen. Jeff Flake and talked to him. He predicted that if President Trump wins, it spells doom for the Republican Party. Do you share that view?
MR: Well, I mean, I mentioned this morning I consider myself a bit of a renegade Republican. I’m in a pretty narrow slice. And we’ll see what happens in the future. I happen to believe that ultimately, our party will be better served if we’re attracting more young people into our party, if we’re attracting a lot more minorities into our party, if we’re attracting more suburban women into our party, and if we can hold a lot of the blue-collar individuals who have joined our party as part of the Trump campaign. That’s not easy to do. But I believe that dealing with a deficit and the debt is the right thing to do. I believe that dealing with China’s emergence as a great power is the right thing to do. And linking arms with our allies is a very important thing for us to do.
I happen to believe that ultimately, our party will be better served if we’re attracting more young people into our party, if we’re attracting a lot more minorities into our party, if we’re attracting more suburban women into our party, and if we can hold a lot of the blue-collar individuals who have joined our party as part of the Trump campaign.
I believe that leaders communicating character in the public domain to demonstrate the qualities that we want our kids to have is really important for the future of their country. I believe it’s important for us to stand up for human rights and to speak out in favor of values that have always defined our country. Look, I’m a subscriber to the Harry Truman-Dean Acheson foreign policy following the Second World War, where they said, Look, we’re going to be involved in the world. Because when we’re not involved in the world, bad things happen. So we’re going to be involved in the world, and we’re going to share our values. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to impose them, but we’re going to share our values and encourage our values.
I think Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il, and Vladimir Putin and a whole host of folks are people who we acknowledge and are civil to because they lead governments, but we don’t compliment them or flatter them, and we point out the abuses that are occurring under their reigns. These are all things I think have to be part of our party if we’re doing the right thing, first and foremost.
DN: Will you vote for President Trump?
MR: We’ll wait to see what happens. Saying you’ll vote for someone I think is pretty much paramount to saying that’s an endorsement. So I’m going to keep my confidence on that.
DN: Why do you think the country is in the place it is? You have moderate positions. There doesn’t seem to be a place in the middle for someone.
MR: I think part of it is the breakdown of institutions — churches, community organizations, neighborhoods — where people of different backgrounds get together and recognize, “Oh, this person is a different political party or different race. But I see him every Sunday in church, and we all get along, and I respect them. And even though we disagree, they obviously care about the country” ...
Another part, I think, is that as we’ve gone from, if you will, three networks every night, where we all get the same news, to multiple sources of news. And the news media has recognized, you know, we get more clicks, we get more audience if we say something that really excites people, and we got to take a choice. You can’t excite them on both sides of the aisle, you’ve gotta choose one or the other. And the more extreme we are, the more passion we get on our viewers.
And it’s not just the news organizations, it’s social media. When you watch MSNBC and you watch Fox, you don’t even see the same facts anymore. And so people who are watching one or the other have various different views about what’s going on the country and, to some degree, have contempt for people on the other side of the aisle. It’s not just that they disagree with them; they think the other person is bad. And we didn’t have that when there were more, if you will, community connections to our churches and various Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and schools that brought families together. There’s less of that going on.
Part of it is, of course, we’re having declining family formation. We’re having much smaller families, people getting married later. Again, less connection in our communities as a result. So part is the development of new social media and the amortization of our news sources. People are having their news curated for them on social media. I see what I agree with. ...
I’d also say that part of this also stems from the failure of leaders of our country of all kinds to deal with some major issues when we had some big problems — their failure to address them and to help people. Having been born and raised in Michigan, I watched what happened to the auto industry and the steel industry. I also worked in the textile industry for many years, as a consultant to Burlington industries. And these industries got devastated with automation, with global trade, with NAFTA. And the powers that be both on the right the left said, Look, this is good for the economy, this will help our economy. And you know what, the economy is doing very well. So overall, it’s been good.
But in Detroit it’s not so good. And in South Bend it’s not so good. And in Lordstown, Ohio, it’s not so good. And in Pittsburgh, it wasn’t. So there are places that really got hurt. And what do we do about that? We said, “Well, the market will solve it.” It may solve it overall, but not for the family that has a house that’s now worthless. It’s got a $75,000 mortgage on it. What are they supposed to do?
Look at Carbon County. My understanding is in Carbon County here, we have more opioid prescriptions than we have people. And so we have to say the economy is going to be dynamic, with changes and movements, particularly in the area of energy. We can’t just leave people to their own devices and say good luck. We have to find a way to help these people reintegrate into the economic vitality of our country. In some cases, that may be to move them, others may be to create huge incentives for employers to expand in rural areas or to move to rural areas. But look where our government offices are? I haven’t looked at where all the offices are in the state of Utah, but my guess is almost all of them are along the Wasatch front.
DN: This is where the people are, though, right?
MR: Yeah, but if some of them are moving to rural Utah, then some of the people will go to rural Utah. And particularly if we’ve got a lot of people in places like Price, Utah, that are losing their jobs as some power plants are going to be closed down. And coal is going to be affected by that. We’ll have a lot of people that are available.
I actually think that presidents may have more impact by virtue of their character and their passion than even the policies they promote.
So, those are parts of a long answer to a very simple question that has many sources of why we’re seeing the polarization we’re seeing in the country today. And what’s the answer to all that? I think, believe it or not, it stems from leadership. I think the defeatism of the world, with Hitler’s rush across Europe — it was stopped by Winston Churchill, one man, an extraordinary leader, who stood up. It’s amazing the defeatism we had in this country following the Jimmy Carter years, with a malaise in the country, and we could never solve our problems. Along comes this optimist, Ronald Reagan. Whether you agree with his policies or not, his optimism, his confidence, his belief in America helped change our country.