Q & A with Governor Mark Sanford

Q & A with Governor Mark Sanford

By Mike Memoli - February 25, 2009

RCP: Earlier the Democratic governors held a press conference in which they called you and the other Republican governors who've said you would reject some stimulus funds a "fringe" group. What is your reaction?

Gov. Sanford: "Fringe" from inside the Beltway can in fact be Main Street to the rest of the country. I think in this instance, I would humbly suggest that the real "fringe" are those that are supporting the stimulus that's not at all in keeping with the principles that made this country great, and not at all in keeping with economic reality. Not at all in keeping with the stable dollar. Not at all in keeping with I think the sentiments of most of this country. I don't think ­ there was something one of the staffers was telling me about that appeared on CNBC or something, and then it went wild on the web, the bloggers yesterday. And then the press spokesperson for the administration is calling this guy out, some reporter by name on what he'd said on some housing stimulus package. It says that there's something going on out there that has a lot of people very anxious about whether this will or won't work.

That's particularly the case when we were just told, "Look, if you just give this money to GM, we'll be all right." And then a matter of weeks later, they come back and say, "Tell you what, either give us some more money or we go bankrupt." There's something wrong when we're told the TARP funds will stabilize the banking system, and yet banking stocks are making new lows as of Friday. I just think that economic history says these things don't work. And I think there are a lot of farmers in Nebraska, a lot of cattlemen in Wyoming, a lot of shrimpers in South Carolina that are just living on a common sense, day-to-day basis that believe you cannot solve a problem of too much debt, but issue more debt. It just doesn't make sense. And so I would respectfully submit we may not be as "fringey" as they think.

RCP: Is it irresponsible to reject these funds that are coming to your state given the challenges that all states are facing, for ideological reasons?

Gov. Sanford: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Is it irresponsible to borrow a bunch of money from the Chinese, Social Security and Medicare to pay for current operations of government so we can stick the tab with my four boys, or your future kids or grandkids? I mean, to me that's the height of irresponsibility. This notion of irresponsible, that is living in a glass house when you begin to talk about that - when you're not talking about a giant piggy bank in Washington, DC but purely going out and doing one or two things: printing money, which is absolutely irresponsible in terms of the value of the currency, or going out and borrowing money, which is irresponsible to the next generation.

As to responsibility, I think the nation's governors are going through -- and particularly the "fringey" ones -- and doing what should have been done in Congress. Obama himself talked about sort of a five-day window in terms of transparency before a bill was signed. All the guys I talked to had 12 to 14 hours or less to look at this thing. The House and Senate didn't really look at this bill. I think the nation's governors are going through with a fine-toothed comb, looking at it. Some of them aren't, they're just saying, 'Yeah, we'll take the money.' But those of us who are "fringey" are going through it with a fine-tooth comb and doing the due diligence that frankly should have been done with this bill in the first place. And so in my case, the Clyburn [amendment] -- frankly, he knows that I don't tend to blinks on these kinds of things -- to basically pluck ­ and fortunately I think Boehner is going to challenge it in a legal sense. At first blush, [what] our policy guys [are] going and looking at is what part do we have control over. And then the second blush is ­ okay, on the part that we control, what is it that comes with so many strings attached so that it doesn't make sense, or what is it that will create a huge hole two years from now that we don't have money for, or what is it that will require more in the way of state funds that we don't presently have to be eligible for the funds. And so, we're going through and sort of deliberately looking at it. And I suspect we will come out with some of it making sense and some of it not making sense.

RCP: You mention the Clyburn amendment and leader Boehner being able to do something as a legal challenge. Is there anything else you can do under your authority as governor to override ­ if the legislature does act to reinstate some of the funding?

Gov. Sanford: Federal law supercedes state law. We've tried the whole cannon thing in South Carolina, it ­ didn't work out so well the first time. So I don't think we'll be lining up the cannons, firing at Fort Sumter. It just doesn't work. It is what it is. You win it, you lose it. We lost this first round. What's unfortunate is, I don't believe for one second that this is the last round. And I don't think that people here in Washington, or folks working up in Wall Street, believe this is the last round either. Which goes to the ultimate irony here. What they have done is to freeze up private capital, which is the real driver of our economy. Because if you stick two business guys in a room and say, "Look, the rules of the game are you rub the stick long enough 'til you make a fire. That's the rule of the game. Whoever makes the fire first wins." Business guys will sit there rubbing the stick because they know what the rules are.

Does anybody have any clue as to what the rules are going forward? Is there going to be another stimulus package, not a stimulus package? Is my competitor going to get bailed out, not going to get bailed out? Is my supplier going to get bailed out, not going to get bailed out? That kind of uncertainty is disastrous in the marketplace. And so what it does is it freezes everybody. Everybody says, I'm holding back. I'm not going to make an investment right now. And so, for $800 billion, ­ call its a trillion dollars worth of stimulus, you freeze up trillions of dollars worth of economic activity. The global economy is 67 trillion dollars in size. You literally freeze up the much larger sphere of private capital, and in the process I think undermine that which everybody's after. We're all after economic stimulus.

RCP: A lot of your fellow governors in the "fringe" category are leaders of the party, perhaps candidates. How much is this about 2012?

Gov. Sanford: Not any from my end. I wouldn't ­ again, nobody I've talked to has said "I'm doing this so I can connect 50,000 dominoes that might lead to something in 2012". I think that the people that are making the stance have fairly clear credentials. You can look at a lot of whacko votes I took back as a freshman in Congress. It's just the way I'm wired and what I believe. And so, this is not exactly new from that standpoint. This is no surprise, "Oh Sanford's going to be against this, that's outrageous, I don't believe that." Anybody that's looked at my voting record seriously knows that this is predictable. Kind of like the sun coming up. If that's coming down the pike, this guy will probably be standing against it. I think people are just laying out where they have been, in some cases for a very long time.

RCP: As a leader among Republican governors, are you pleased with how Congressional Republicans, Washington Republicans have handled the opposition role?

Gov. Sanford: Yeah, ­ Jim DeMint asked me to speak to the Republican caucus. I was telling them different practical things that we had reservations about. I think they've done a great job and I'd commend them.

RCP: Much has been made of this rift within the GOP over the stimulus plan. Is that something you've been talking to each other about while you're here?

Gov. Sanford: Again, I just had a very pleasant visit with Jim Douglas. I'm going to do the Republican Governors Association Dinner tonight. And so, no. Arnold Schwarzenegger just walked by and I didn't throw anything at him. Which you'd never do to the Terminator anyway. So, no, everybody's where they are. That's the nature of federalism. You have 50 different states, and we're going to have different takes on what works and what doesn't work. I think the bigger issue, though, is ­whether anybody's minding the company store. Because if it's purely about my political fiefdom against your political fiefdom, and if you don't take any of the cash and then let me have it, is anybody watching that big number: 52 trillion dollars of accumulated liability that has been stacked up, that David Walker, former comptroller of the United States of America is out there talking about? Call us "fringe", but what we're talking about is very much the middle, which is look on the back of a penny ­ it says E Pluribus Unum, ­ "Out of Many, One,". The intent of the founding fathers was we wouldn't only look out for our respective corners of the country, but we would also look out for the big picture. And the course that we're on has been absolutely unsustainable in economic terms, and that trend has been sped, or increased, by this stimulus package.

RCP: Can you give me your sense of the landscape heading into the critical election year?

Gov. Sanford: It's the Super Bowl of gubernatorial races. More than 35 races, that's a big deal. So, it's a big deal from the standpoint of policy. It's the first time in 16 years that Republicans have held neither the House, Senate nor White House. I remember back when I was in Congress, the saying was that the minority is there to collect a pension, provide a quorum, and that's about it. As a member of the minority, you can do a good job of blocking things, stopping things, trying to stop things, slow things. It's very difficult to actually advance policy. And what people want to see at the end of the day is policy that makes a difference in their life. And if you can't do that, that's a problem in the world of politics. And so I think it creates that much more policy importance from the standpoint of governorships, because they happen to be the last guys standing.

And, frankly, welfare reform began with Engler and Thomson. It starts state level in that type of vaccum. I think you're probably going to see some pretty good ideas out of governorships, both Republican and Democrat, across the country. Because there will be more weight with the governorships based on what's happened in the Congress. Secondly, what I would say to the pure politics, look at redistricting in 2010 and the number of swing Congressional districts that will come as a result of either a Republican or Democratic governor sitting in that seat. I think it's a Super Bowl in terms of policy and a Super Bowl in terms of Congress.

RCP: More Democratic incumbents than Republican incumbents. That's traditionally a disadvantage, but given the state of the economy and the tough decisions governors have had to make, unpopular decisions, does that help your cause?

Gov. Sanford: I think it's just too far out to say. James Carville said, "It's the economy stupid". It'll be the economy, stupid. So if it turns out I'm totally wrong, which I don't believe I am, and the stimulus had all kinds of effects, then it's going to be one picture with regards to electoral prospects. If it turns out we're continuing to erode from the standpoint of economics, it's going to be a very different picture. I think it's too far in the distance.

RCP: There's this view that perhaps Republicans are rooting for President Obama to fail. What's your reaction to that sentiment?

Gov. Sanford: You know, the first meeting we had there in Philadelphia, when the nation's governors came and met with Obama, I stood in that room, and I said, ­ "Look. I don't want to disagree with you." I sat there in the living room of our house, tears coming down my eyes, my four boys gathered with me, watching that speech he gave in Grant Park. His kids running out, his wife was there. And you thought about one of the ultimate sort of Horatio Alger stories in the history of politics. To think that he could pull off a win against the biggest Democratic fundraising machine that I think has ever existed. What he did was marvelous, in terms of just a human story.

And I said, "Man to man, I dont want to disagree with you on anything. And as an American, I absolutely want you to succeed. And therefore, as an American who wants you to succeed ­ because we're all in this boat together ­ it's incumbent upon me, if I think an idea is a bad idea, even though I don't want to disagree, to lay it out." And he said his say and I said my say and he said his say and I said my say, and we called it quits.

I don't want him to fail. Anybody who wants him to fail is an idiot, because it means we're all in trouble. But I do think, in that same vein, if you've looked at the pages of history, if you've looked at the pages of economic data that I've looked at over a long period of time -- I've got a masters in business from the University of Virginia, I've worked up in New York in finance -- if you've looked at that kind of stuff and you legitimately think that something ain't going to work, you'd be cheating him and cheating yourself if you didn't lay it out and call an ace an ace in terms of where you're coming from.

RCP: You wouldn't rule out running against him in four years, would you?

Gov. Sanford: I've learned that you never rule anything in or out in life. Take it a day at a time.

Mike Memoli covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at

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