SALT LAKE CITY — Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor and congressman who’s taking on President Donald Trump in the race for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination, offered a gloomy assessment of the impact of the nation’s growing deficit during a campaign stop in Salt Lake City Monday.
“When this fire starts — and we’re not far out from it starting — we’re not going to have the tools to combat the forest fire and it’s going to burn intensely,” Sanford told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards, warning that Americans will be hit harder than they were during the so-called Great Recession a decade ago.
“I think it will be much worse. I think it will be on the order of a Great Depression,” Sanford said, referring to the worldwide economic plummet that followed the 1929 stock market crash on Wall Street and continued until the start of World War II years later.
Having the highest-ever peacetime deficit, now well over $1 trillion, at a time when an economic downturn is already anticipated may be the spark that leads to an economic crisis, he suggested. But getting people to listen to his chief campaign message has been “a game of inches.”
Sanford’s Salt Lake stop was part of a weeklong road trip through 11 states that began in Philadelphia and ends in Los Angeles on Wednesday with the theme, “Kids, we’re bankrupt and we didn’t even know it.” He was scheduled to hold an event in Las Vegas on Tuesday.
While he said he’s getting some attention for his “long shot long shot” campaign, there’s won’t be enough focus on the deficit until the economic decline begins.
“That’s the problem. We all know about the political dynamic of when a subject’s hot, it’s hot and when it’s not, it’s not,” Sanford said, complaining both Republicans and Democrats are ignoring the issue. “People are being lulled into a sense of complacency based on the fact that leaders aren’t talking about it. They’re doing an incredible disservice to folks who are going to get hammered.”
Trump, he said, has not been honest about the situation.
“I differ in that people can digest and deal with things, but they have to know the truth to be able to do so. I think the administration has been disingenuous on what they projected in terms of economic growth and cuts,” Sanford said. “The president has pandered on this front,” including by promising to eliminate the national debt.
“What he said sounded good to Republican voters. But that’s not what he’s done,” Sanford said. “I’m laying out the facts as they are. People can draw their own conclusions. They can go to our website. It’s data heavy, it’s boringly so but I think necessarily so.”
Sanford voted for Trump’s signature $1.5 trillion tax cut package in 2017, saying at the time it was not a break for the middle class but a corporate tax cut and restructuring bill intended to remedy the nation from being “way out of the hunt” in terms of being attractive to businesses.
“I am for fair, flatter and broad-based taxes that treat people the same,” he said. “The aim, at least, of this bill, was to say, ‘Let’s put people on an even playing field, one that’s indeed competitive,” so companies wouldn’t continue to relocate to countries with more competitive tax rates.
Bringing civility back to presidential politics is also part of his campaign, Sanford said.
“I’m not bombastic, which probably plays to my political detriment,” he said, citing the approach of another Republican in the presidential race, former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, who recently called Trump “the most disloyal president we’ve ever had.”
Sanford called that “matching a lesser level of Trump” and said, “To be civil right now is to be squarely in the middle and there is no center in politics these days. So if you’re loud right or loud left, if you’re bombastic in your approach, you get air time. But at some point, we’ve got to walk back from the ledge.”
He said as a congressman, he encountered a participant in a town hall meeting on health care who was “particularly obnoxious, I mean, just chewing a hole in me.” That man, Sanford said, told him afterwards, “If the president of the United States can say anything to anybody at any time on any subject, why can’t I?”
Some of what Trump is doing, he said, “is giving people license for incredibly destructive things in the body politic and in the way we relate to our neighbors. In the same way that we have an absolute threat to our survival as a republic based on sustainable numbers, we also have to have sustainable discourse.”
Later, Sanford told reporters it’s not accurate to say his challenge of Trump helps the Democrats running for president.
“Are you kidding me? Our Founding Fathers gave us a reason-based republic where debate is essential to making things better,” he said. Allowing only debate on the Democratic side because there is a GOP incumbent in the White House means ending up with “more of those ideas ingested into the American political bloodstream.”
Competition, he said, is “the American way. We’re made stronger by competition.”
But Sanford stopped short of saying he’d back Trump if the president is the Republican on the November 2020 ballot.
“I don’t rule it out,” he said.
Asked if Trump would be better than having a Democrat in the White House, Sanford said, “I don’t know. It depends on who the Democrat is. If it’s (Vermont Sen.) Bernie Sanders, it’s pretty tough, given the numbers he’s thrown around and the new entitlements that he’s talking about.”
He left open the possibility, however, of preferring a Democrat over the sitting GOP president.
“I’ve said I will be open-minded,” Sanford said, “and base it on the ideas I’m talking about now.”