Chances are good you've never heard of Republican presidential candidate Mark Everson, and he doesn't (and likely never will) have the campaign cash to change that.
And if you are aware of him, your impression might not be particularly favorable. He ran the loathed Internal Revenue Service for four years under President George W. Bush. And his tenure as CEO of the American Red Cross lasted less than eight months, with Everson forced to resign because of an inappropriate romantic relationship with a subordinate.
It doesn't help that for a person running for president, Everson's electoral-political experience is "pretty thin" by his own admission.
But there are many reasons you should acquaint yourself with Everson and his agenda:
· He's doing his shoestring campaign in Iowa right, pledging to visit all 99 counties. He sat down April 9 for a 100-minute interview with me, reflecting a willingness to go wherever people will listen.
· He plans to spend between $250,000 and $300,000 of his own money on his candidacy, so even if he's not conventionally viable, he's quite literally invested in his campaign.
· The six points of emphasis for his campaign include immigration reform that would include a path to citizenship for law-abiding illegal immigrants already in the country - a hot-button example of Everson not pandering to the more conservative side of the GOP.
· Those six planks also include two elements that don't pander to any major constituency. He favors reinstating some form of the military draft, and he supports entitlement reform that would, for example, take Social Security benefits away from people who don't financially need them.
· Despite that, his platform has a populist streak, most notably a major reform of the tax code that would create a 12.9-percent national sales tax and exempt 150 million people from the income tax. (Filing-jointly couples with income less than $100,000 and singles making less than $50,000 would not pay any income tax.)
· On that populist front, he also pledges to aggressively pursue criminal prosecution against individuals engaging in illegal activity at big banks, and he promises to serve only one term as president. (He also favors a constitutional amendment restricting presidents to a single five- or six-year term.)
· Befitting somebody whose career has been in administration rather than politics, Everson is a strong advocate of separation of powers, and promises as president to execute the law as written rather than pursuing an agenda through executive orders or rule-making - which would represent a shift back toward the spirit of the Constitution that should appeal to people concerned about an imperial American presidency.
· The man comes with baggage in his personal life, but he's reasonably up-front about it and doesn't make excuses.
In total, Everson represents a sort of radical pragmatism born of an administrative soul. Some of his positions would undoubtedly be difficult to accomplish politically, but they also represent thoughtful, practical approaches to serious problems and issues. If he doesn't have a realistic chance of winning the Iowa caucuses, one can at least hope he'll get enough traction to enlarge the conversation leading up to them in February 2016.
Personally, I wish Everson were as detailed and firm with all of his issues as he is with tax reform, but he has a solid reason for being (at times) wishy-washy. Talking about entitlement reform, for example, Everson refused to say what lines he would draw on eligibility for Social Security benefits: "You set a set of principles and you work with the Congress to negotiate real reforms. That's what you should do. If you set up a dynamic where you derive a set of particular answers, then people pick apart those answers. ...
"I recognize that major changes in the direction of the country have to run through Congress; that's the body that does that. So I'm going to work to get things done. I'm not going to make the perfect the enemy of the good. ... Just pandering to people and saying, 'Here's where I am; I'm not going to budge,' that's just going to get us where we are now."
Here are excerpted highlights from our conversation, organized into major topics of discussion (and not necessarily reflecting conversational flow). For more information on Everson's campaign, visit MarkForAmerica.com.
Why He's Running
Everson's campaign-announcement letter can be found at RCReader.com/y/everson2.
I'm concerned about the country. I think we need to get the country back on the right track. In the line of work I'm in, I've spoken in 30 different states across the country. Anywhere you go, it's the same. There's a recognition that many of us - not of all of us, but many of us - are doing better than five or six years ago when the bottom had fallen out [of the economy]. But you almost never meet somebody who thinks the country is doing better as a whole.
People are quite frustrated, and they're frustrated with the political leadership at all levels - it's local, state, and national, but particularly at the national level ... . They feel that the politicians aren't being square with the people, that the system is awash in money and that certain issues are sort of off-limits and that we're not going to go after them because you get identified with a certain bloc and then you are basically owned by backers.
So I have an agenda that addresses some issues that some of these folks don't find convenient, because I talk about the big banks. ... They [other candidates] are getting money from all the big Wall Street guys, so they're not going to talk about this. So I do think that there's a very real chance. Okay, I recognize: Maybe I'm not the guy. But I actually think I have something to offer both in terms of the agenda and then in terms of credentials.
In the conversations I have with people, they are so frustrated with the current dynamic that they are searching for candidates who will take them outside of their normal political neighborhood, and they are willing to entertain policy solutions that are outside of their normal space ... - if they feel that those policy decisions or initiatives are well-thought-out, they have a chance to work, and they're not being advanced for political reasons. I think that there's a hunger for an authenticity. ...
I have a different set of credentials. It's untraditional. But if we are happy with our politics, yes, let's keep doing exactly the same thing we're doing. Let's have a contest with senators. Let's have a contest with governors who have all made their careers raising money from those bases. If the people think that's fine, that's what they'll do.
Some of the older people are not going to like what I'm saying about entitlement reforms. I already know some of the younger people don't like the idea of the draft.
I'm planning on having a real set of conversations with the American people. If we want to feel better about our country, we have to be realistic about what we're going after. We cannot continue to have the same shallow conversations where people promise that things can be fixed, where Ted Cruz will say we're going to abolish the IRS. That's not going to happen. Somebody's going to collect the taxes.
Everson largely supports Michael J. Graetz's "Competitive Tax Plan," which can be found at RCReader.com/y/everson3. Projections for the deficit-neutral, five-point plan state that federal taxes from all sources would only increase for the top 20 percent of earners. The proposal also includes lower taxes on corporate income.
I ran the IRS for four years. I would occasionally get a letter from the IRS, and I would get home and I would twitch, because I've been a taxpayer a lot longer than I'd ever been an official at the IRS. And all it was was some health-care notice or something like that. People have a relationship with the services; it's not friendly. They don't feel great about the IRS. If we can relieve that [by exempting a significant portion of the population from the federal income tax], that's important.
I think economists pretty well agree that a consumption tax [on goods and services] would be a good thing for a growing economy, for people more piloting ... their own finances ... .
If you bring down the corporate rate ... , that's going to make us more competitive ... and bring that piece [of corporate-income-tax revenue] back, because you won't have as much structuring with the Apples and the Googles and all that overseas.
Something's got to be done to make those larger businesses more competitive, and yet not have them structuring transactions the way they are right now, where they're contorting themselves [to avoid paying corporate income taxes].
The president has to lead on that issue. Obama has not chosen to lead on that issue. He's said, "I'll do everything I can" on gun control or immigration. He's never said that about taxes. And the only way you get something done there is that the president takes a personal interest with his treasury secretary and works on it.
Everson supports reforming many different types of entitlements, but our discussion largely dealt with Social Security.
I don't know if it [Social Security] is really the biggest problem. I think people will tell you that it's a problem that's also the easiest to solve [on a policy rather than political level].
I would tighten the eligibility, and the way I look at it is if you don't need your Social Security, if you've done well enough, we should look at whether that's necessary ... .
We need to entertain bringing out eligibility ages, we need to look at some of the inflation indices, and we need to look at some of the benefit levels tied to earnings or wealth. All of those things need to be considered. And then we need to get to something that will sustain and get us back to a reasonable level of spending.
Bringing Back the Draft
I began our discussion of his draft proposal by asking whether there was a military rationale for it.
I think that's an interesting question, and I believe that the military has become more efficient and more effective in the decades since the draft was ended. I don't think there's any question about that. A whole series of things changed in the '80s and the '90s that made the military more effective.
I don't like the multiple deployments, the number of people we've had who served repeatedly overseas. And they come back damaged.
I ran the workforce-training programs in Indiana. It's a real challenge. Everybody says, "Oh, yeah. I'm all for the vets. I'm all for the vets." And then when you ask them to hire one, they're a little bit skittish about PTSD. So there are things that we've got to take a look at about the composition of the military. I'm not suggesting you go back to a draft that's going to constitute 50 or 80 percent of the force, but I think you could put in 20 or 25 percent, phase that in over time, and then it would be a healthy change.
We call for a round of applause when there's a uniformed military on the plane. Everybody feels better, and that's all they know. That's the degree of interaction between the military and the people. I think the military will benefit from it. Some of the very senior uniformed people have bemoaned the separation. ... I think that it's essential that we find ways to rebuild our national sense of community.
I am not proposing at this time a full model that some countries have - a program of national service where you spend a year or two in the service. You might be in the military, you might be in a police force, you might be in a hospital, working in the parks. I would be happy to have that broader conversation. I am putting out this specific proposal. People said: "Would you include women in that?" I would. But if the Congress says, "No, that's not what we want to do," I would be willing to entertain that.
I'm not in favor of amnesty for those who have been engaging in criminal activity. You have to set up certain benchmarks as to how long people have been here, have they been law-abiding, paying taxes. Again, we'd work work on that.
It comes down to the fabric of our nation. ... We've allowed our culture to evolve, and we've always had a tradition of assimilation. I favor the comprehensive reform. First, changing the legal system to make it more operating in our own economic self-interest rather than ... largely about quotas and family unification and things like that. I want us to be more competitive in this global economy. So I would change the legal system, but then I would strengthen the border control ... .
So then you get to: If you if tighten up going forward the illegal immigration, what do you do about those people who are here? My principal concern here is not unlike the question I'm posing with the draft, and the bonds of our society ... . My principal concern here is that we get all Americans pulling together. The 11 million people [in the United States illegally] aren't going anywhere. We're not going to send them all home. That would be so destructive to our economy and our culture, and what we can't do is just let this issue sit here. We need to address it, and ... reinforce assimilation. Yes, I want those people to learn English. You can put in stricter standards as to progress toward learning English than the Senate bill had put in eight years ago. I'm in favor of that.
I don't favor special carve-outs for the ag workers. I wouldn't allow the ag workers to have a path to citizenship. If you're coming over here principally to send checks back because you're working for five or six months, that's fine, that's an economic relationship. Set up a program to do that. But that doesn't mean you should get a path to citizenship.
But the folks who are here, yeah, if they can demonstrate that they're fully participating, I would give them the path to citizenship, and then we get one America all pulling in the same direction.
I say that we're looking at this from the wrong perspective. We should be alarmed about ... radical Islam, and that is going to be with us. ... The only way to confront them is to be unwelcoming to that radical extremism. The way we'll do that is by reinforcing and rebuilding our own culture of assimilation. And making a conscious decision to allow isolated communities to exist in this way I don't think will get us there. That'll get us to where France is. It may not be tomorrow, but it'll be 20, 30, or 50 years from now. And this confrontation between radical Islam and the Western values - Christianity and other Judeo-Christian culture - that will still be going on down the road for sure.
Our discussion on foreign policy included ISIS, the Iraq wars, Russia, and Iran. Everson said he does not support how the "framework" nuclear agreement with Iran was accomplished.
You need to say, "What if I'm wrong? What if the facts are wrong? What then?" You have to really have looked it all the way through.
I don't think we have found a durable approach ... to ... our foreign-policy and how we are dealing with this very real threat of radical Islam.
You have certain policy instincts, and then you have to be able to communicate your policy decision. ... But you have to understand that oftentimes the underlying facts which are being presented to you are wrong. So you have to have a policy dynamic that ... will work. You have to assume: "What happens if the facts aren't here; what happens if they're over here?" ... You have to construct policies that can fit within a knowledge that the facts that you have are probably wrong.
Obviously the facts were wrong on what we did in Iraq. We also were totally wrong in the execution. ... We would have been far better off if we'd worked with the army that was there instead of going with the chaos. It took us years to learn our way through that, obviously. There are numerous lessons to be learned.
In terms of dealing with Putin, I think we need to make it as uncomfortable and as difficult as possible for him to expand the Russian territory. ... I would have supplied weaponry to the Ukraine to slow him down. I would have gone further than we've gone. The president's been very reluctant to do that. I think we need to find ways that we make it painful for him and retard his growth.
Now when you get into the Mideast, it goes back to Iran and ISIS. We need to recognize that ISIS is not a terrorist group; ISIS is a nation state. It has territory. I think it changes things significantly. It changes the equation of whether you're dealing with things on a military basis.
The president has, from the minute he started running, said, "I will meet with adversaries without precondition." ... He has been very quick to make friends with adversaries in hopes of being Nixonian, ... but he's done it at the expense of our relationships with our allies.
I'm concerned about Iran for a couple reasons. ... It's been very tough to get compliance with the sanctions that the West has had on Iran to begin with, and now if we unilaterally lift those sanctions at a time when there is a very dangerous jockeying going on between Iran and her proxies on the one side and adversaries on others ... . If you empower the Iranians - as you will do, this nuclear issue aside - the question really has to be asked: Are you making things tougher?
If this agreement goes through, it will force America to be more not less engaged in that part of the world because there will be more tensions and more and more flames going on.
I wouldn't lift the sanctions [on Iran] at this point.
He [Obama] was so desirous of getting a deal that I think we were the ones who pay most of the concessions.
I don't know what the agreement is ... going to say. They haven't finished the agreement. They've got a long way to go. I believe in the power of the executive, and I'm not going to prejudge where we'll be.
I don't like the fact that the 47 senators wrote to our adversaries. I think there's a role here for the president. There's a role here for the Senate. I would hope that anything the president concludes would go to the Senate. There is a shared responsibility in these areas.
Surveillance and Security
Everson was largely circumspect and vague on the topic of federal surveillance of American citizens.
I do think we need to be careful. We always need to balance national security, law enforcement, for individual liberty. It's an important issue. I would hope to get that right. A lot of that is about who you appoint in these positions, and frankly it's also dealing with the Congress. I believe the Congress does a pretty lousy job of writing laws, but it's very important in terms of the oversight it brings to the administration. Congress has got to do its job, ask questions.
I asked: Do you believe the National Security Agency surveillance of American citizens was operating within the law as written by Congress, considering that enforcement of statutes as passed is a central theme of your campaign?
I don't know enough of the details of the specific programs to render a judgment. ... My gut feeling is that the country in the post-9/11 period was pretty aggressive about confronting challenges ... . If I get in and take this over, I'm going to take a good look at all that. I'm not second-guessing. The country's been safe; that's important. I think we're having a conversation about what's been collected or what's not been collected.
I am concerned. I don't want to see a constant drifting of it [intelligence] into the Defense Department. I'd like to see that traditional reversion to more intelligence coming through the CIA. I'd like to see the DNI [Director of National Intelligence] have the authorities that deal with a true brokering between the various collection agencies.
But ... it's reckless to comment too much ... . If you have access to the classified information, you know what really is happening, you reach different judgments on this as to what's reasonable. The trick is to get experienced, good people in there who aren't enamored of their toys, who are respectful of those lines and balancing them out. You have to keep the country safe, but you can't do it at the expense of our Constitution.
I think federal standards are helpful. Looking across the country and saying, ... "What works and what doesn't work?", and having the best way to test and really get at how kids are doing. ... We're getting data for the first time down to ethnic groups within communities as to how they're doing. This is all good, accumulating that data. But I do not believe in ceding the authority [over what's taught in schools] to some GS-13 in Washington.
What I think really exacerbated this problem was when we started to award financial incentives from the federal government based on somebody's judgment [about educational policy] ... .
I don't think the funding should be a driver in that. I think what should happen here is that the federal government could share information about what works and what doesn't work. ... My goodness, we've got to get to best practices. But we can't change the dynamic where we're moving local control to Washington. ... The control and the implementation have got to be at the local level.
Our discussion began with Everson's blanket statement in his announcement letter that "I support the police" in the context of high-profile incidents of questionable police use of force against unarmed people.
I've worked with a lot of law enforcement. But ... that doesn't mean you can't do better. Some of these incidents [involving police killing unarmed people] are atrocious.
I don't know if it's more prevalent or it's just more present because of the technology that captures these things, but it's a problem, and it's got to be addressed.
They've got to do better in terms of addressing racial tensions. I do think it's a real issue. Because I say I support the police doesn't mean I don't say we need to do better. And the other piece of that [is] we need to look at [criminal-justice] reforms.
My sister was a victim of a serial murderer. That's a very real tragedy. I believe, though, that we can't have a criminal-justice system that provides a life sentence for people to inferior economic opportunity. So we need to make changes in the system very clearly so that we give people second chances ... .
When I was running the workforce system in Indiana, everywhere I went, employers large and small would say to me, "I can't find people who will do the tough jobs." I said: "I want to start a program where we take a select number of people coming out of the prisons and we help them find jobs." ... I knew that there was a cohort in there of people who said, "Look, I've messed up. ... I don't want to repeat that." ... There are a lot of people out there who want to get it right. And what we've got right now is a situation where there is no hope, and so this cycle repeats itself. ... We need to rebuild the economies and structures in some of these communities.
I am struck by the decriminalization. It's a state issue right now. ... The changes, as often happens, are taking place at the state level. If you look at our democracy, there are changes in attitudes, and sooner or later they often will trickle into the federal system.
That [prison] population has exploded, if you go back over that 30 years. And to what end? It's both costly and then it's destructive to the communities. So I embrace taking a very good, hard look at it now.
I think this is moving already. ... I'm not sure where the specifics are ... , but I'm very comfortable looking at that.
Everson is adamantly opposed to the current federal approach toward white-collar crime involving banks. In promoting criminal prosecution, he quoted James Comey: "The nice thing about white-collar criminals is they get it. If you send a few of them to jail, behaviors change."
I'm troubled ... where the [Eric] Holder Justice Department is just shaking down the banks, gotten the fines, but not taking criminal sanctions on anybody. It's really rather shocking when you think of the long litany of things that have happened.
I'm concerned about the fact that we've got these mega-institutions now that are undeniably different than what we've had in the past in terms of their international reach, the broader set of products they have; they're tied to non-traditional banking services - capital markets - and they have operated largely outside the law.
This is a serious concern to the security of the financial system. We can't have entities taking on that degree of risk in doing those things in a way that undermines the safety of the system. And also it undermines respect for the rule of law because ... they run the light, they pay the ticket, and they speed up. The executives aren't held accountable. They're not even fired.
There's been this game where they [federal prosecutors] shake down the banks for these fines. If there's a criminal charge, make it. These banks are well-defended. They can take care of themselves. They've got a lot more resources than some U.S. attorney's office does.
We need to find a way to hold the CEO accountable. I would ask Congress to write a law that would say, "$500 million in fines, then any salary in excess of a million dollars gets taxed at a rate of 95 percent." They can draw the line higher or lower. ... You've got to construct something to have some skin in the game here [for bank leaders].
His Government Experience
Everson bristled when I innocuously noted that he had "a lot of bureaucratic and administrative experience." Beyond serving as commissioner of the IRS, he also held high-ranking positions in the federal government's Office of Management & Budget and Department of Defense. Starting in 2009, he served more than three years in the cabinet of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.
My credentials are superior to anybody in the field on the Republican side in terms of running the government. ... It's not bureaucratic and administrative experience. It's experience running important institutions, and it's experience dealing with the Congress. I testified before Congress 50 times when I was the IRS commissioner. I have executed the law as written. One of the primary objections of Republicans to this president is that he has used his pen to rewrite laws. Nobody else in the contest can make the rightful claim that they have a record that I have of executing the laws as written. That's a track record people can look at, and they can see what I've done and what I haven't done, and that's the approach I'll take if I go all the way through and am elected.
Respecting the Law as Written
Given his comment that "I believe the Congress does a pretty lousy job of writing laws," I asked about his belief in the administrative role - and his opposition to executive action to accomplish policy goals. He backtracked on his earlier comment:"I didn't say they do a lousy job of writing laws. They do a lousy job of legislating." He clarified that Congress' failures involve 11th-hour re-authorizations, not addressing important issues (such as immigration and tax policy) head-on, and not revisiting flawed legislation.
The greatest tragedy about the Affordable Care Act is we've intervened in 17 percent of the economy - a couple thousand pages of very detailed provisions - and we're not adjusting it.
If there are mistakes that are in statutes, traditionally there are clarifying adjustments, technical corrections; a whole series of things happen. But we've got this dynamic, which is toxic right now, where the Republicans haven't wanted to change it in any way, because it would be seen as a capitulation, and the Democrats have said, "We're not going to change because that'll gut it."
It [the redefinition of full-time work from 40 to 30 hours under the Affordable Care Act] has had a clearly negative effect in entertainment, hospitality, retail, restaurants.
So I asked: What's the role of the president in that situation? Everson replied that the president should use the bully pulpit to set an agenda - but not abuse executive authority to implement that agenda.
I've got six big-ticket items. ... [For example,] I think you're only going to get real change when somebody runs on a program of tax reform. It's clear, and that gives cover to the Congress to then do those things. You've got to set principles and then work and recognize that there are differences on both sides of the table.
The president can advocate for things, he can accept the will of the people as expressed by the legislative body, or he can veto things ... . But we seem to have drifted into this position where we're not working constructively with articulating some of the big-ticket items ... . You've got to play a robust role [with Congress]. [But] once the law is written, you're done.
A One-Term Presidency
I think that's an important principle. ... It ties into getting the politics out of the Oval Office in the sense that I've served in two very different administrations - the Reagan administration and the second Bush administration, totally different administrations. But they had one thing in common: By year three, decisions up and down the line were made with a view to the re-elect. And I think that's the wrong way to run the country. We're at a very delicate point in time in terms of trying to address continuing challenges associated with globalization [and] transitions in the economy, not to mention a very deteriorated foreign overseas position, and the continuing problems of Russia and Putin, and the Mideast and ISIS, and a growing, more-muscular China. So this is an important time to get this right.
Letting the States Work Things Out
Some of these things get settled over time, and some people feel that abortion would have been a much less contentious issue if there'd been no Roe V. Wade, because the states were dealing with this issue over time in their own right. One has to recognize that over time, a lot happens in the democracy, and it happens at different levels. And the levels, they interact and there are tussles. ... That's a normal part of the process, and I don't think it falls to the president to to say, "I'm always going to take as much territory there as I can." You've got to look at it each time, and say, "Is this something where there's a national interest ... ?"
His Personal Life
Beyond the relationship that cost him his job at the Red Cross, Everson also admitted in his announcement letter that he got a woman pregnant who later aborted the fetus. At first, he declined to answer when that happened ("That's a private matter"), but he then said it was "decades ago." I raised the issue because of his opposition to abortion except when the life of the mother or child is in danger. I asked whether he consented to the abortion.
Yes, I would say so, in the sense that I didn't act against it.
My personal journey is not something I'm totally proud of. ... I've struggled in that area. ... I earned the dissolution of my marriage. I was held accountable. Look, I lost that marriage, I lost a very good, important job doing work that I enjoyed and that I felt I was making a real contribution.
I won't convince everybody that that conduct is acceptable. There'll be some people who will say, "This guy, we can't go with him."
We need to have half a million, six-hundred-thousand [dollars] to get through into the early fall ... to have a fairly modest operation. ... So I've got to raise 200 [thousand] to 300 thousand [dollars]. It depends on how much we do. If we start to do better, then you travel more to other states - of course you need more. But hopefully if you're doing better, ... you have more ability to raise the money.
I think Iowa plays an historic vetting, credentialing role. I respect that. ... Some people say, "Well it's a very conservative group." That may be true, but it's also an extremely engaged group. ... I don't expect anybody to say, "Okay, yeah, I like this guy. I'm with him on all six of these [platform items]." I don't expect that. ... What I'm offering is a real conversation about a series of issues, a real record. I think the electorate is rather unsettled, and if I'm wrong about that, then, yeah, you won't see that working six or eight months from now.