Utah Sen. Mitt Romney recently sat down with the Deseret News editorial board to give an update on his service and answer questions related to foreign policy, the national debt, gun control, the future of the Republican Party and the state of American public discourse. Here are his responses.
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.
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.
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.
Read the full interview here.