The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mark Sanford might be Republicans’ last chance

Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.). (Bruce Smith/AP)

Ideologically I am much closer to former Massachusetts governor William Weld, but as a matter of political pragmatism, former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford may be the best bet to save the Republican Party from itself before the Democrats do it for them in 2020. No one can accuse him of being a phony conservative, or adopting views for the sake of political expediency. He is saying the same things he has said for years, and that makes for a damning indictment of Trump’s presidency.

Listening to Sanford on the cable TV rounds over the past few days, I’ll admit, gave me a sense of relief. Here’s a rock-ribbed conservative saying President Trump is imperiling the country with debt and trade tariffs (he should be calling them trade taxes), as well as by his assault on democratic institutions and his horrible tone. Wow! It’s like digging up a time capsule back to the olden days of . . . 2016. Even more refreshing, he’s expressed a conservative vision different from the Luddites who enable Trump.

In a folksy way, he describes what has happened to South Carolina’s Low Country. He believes in climate change, and argues it is illogical to believe in science when it comes to the galaxy and medicine, but not when it concerns the Earth. Thank goodness! You don’t have to be an elite from the coasts or a socialist to understand climate change is real. (Many more Republicans would say the same if they weren’t cowering from Trump and his know-nothing base.)

Sanford is also a Republican who cheers for legal immigration, calling us a nation of immigrants and urging us to “welcome folks” who want to come here. He correctly says we are in “an international race for human capital.” Logical. Rational.

Trump mocks Mark Sanford, his latest Republican primary challenger

Former congressman Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) and former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld (R) are challenging President Trump in 2020. (Video: The Washington Post)

He also cares about tone, and his precise, calm presentation reminds us of what normal Republicans used to sound like.

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Sanford also put off saying he’d endorse Trump if he was the GOP nominee. Finally. He argues he’ll endorse whoever’s closest to his views. (Might that be libertarian independent Justin Amash, if the Michigan congressman runs?)

It would a massive understatement to say it’s an uphill climb for Sanford. Nevertheless, it’s incumbent on Democrats of good will (who keep saying they want Trump out at all costs) and sane independents and Republicans to applaud the effort.

Free advice is what you pay for it, but here are a few suggestions for the governor.

First, he acknowledges debt and deficits aren’t sexy, but a socialist farm policy (spending billions to reimburse farmers for tariffs) is ripe for attack. He’s the right person to call Trump’s tariffs what they are: a tax on consumers, a regressive tax at that. In short, he needs to go after the most egregious economic outrages — from the right. (This is a GOP contest, folks.) This is aimed squarely at reluctant Trump voters who now see chaos as far as the eye can see and the volatility of markets with Trump in the White House.

Second, a big part of Sanford’s argument should include Trump’s grotesque self-dealing and corruption, as well as his hugely un-conservative idea of picking business winners and losers. (Trump’s idea to pick coal as a “winner” perfectly exemplifies why politicians shouldn’t pick winners and losers.) Sanford would be wise to back some good government reforms (e.g., all officials release their taxes, no revolving door, no nepotism, mandatory divestment of businesses). He also should call out Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s threats to NOAA officials and Attorney General William P. Barr’s planned $30,000 party at a Trump hotel. Well remembered as the guy who brought pigs to lawmakers to underscore the problem with pork-barrel spending, Sanford might bring those pigs (or their trough) to a few Trump properties.

Third, Sanford says that “we as a party have lost our way.” He must make a sustained response to Trump’s fanning the flames of white nationalism. Sanford needs to call Trump out as un-American, a man at odds with our founding creed (“All men are created equal . . . .”). Sanford also should blow the whistle on Republicans’ attempt to tip the electorate and limit voting. That’s the conduct of a fearful, anti-democratic party that has given up appealing to the whole country. Trump’s cancellation of primaries is an outrage which Sanford should use to shame a president apparently afraid to let voters pick their nominee.

Ed Rogers: Republicans are canceling primaries. Is Trump afraid of something?

Fourth, when it comes to what Sanford describes as “tone," it would hardly be an exaggeration to say what most Republican lawmakers acknowledge to themselves: There is something terribly wrong with the president, and his lying, impulsiveness, meanness and deliberate ignorance make him unfit to lead. It would be a relief to millions of Americans disgusted with Republicans’ cowardly silence.

Finally, Sanford would be smart to take on Trump’s illogical and destructive foreign policy. Bringing the Taliban to Camp David? Sanford should mention that at every stop, along with Trump’s subservience to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his getting snowed by North Korea’s brutal dictator. (Trump is certain the murderous dictator “likes” him.) Sanford needs to reaffirm the importance of NATO and of defending human rights. In other words, he’s got to remind voters what a rational foreign policy looks like. Once more, this is an area where Republican lawmakers know Trump is a menace.

Sanford’s going to have to find his own path, but if he keeps in mind the things Republicans privately bemoan — tariffs, Trump’s racism and unfitness, corruption and erratic, Putin-dependent foreign policy he’ll at least remind elected Republicans what cowards they are and ordinary Republicans how far they’ve been led astray.

Read more:

From the archives: Republicans ‘don’t want the tweet that I got’: Mark Sanford says Trump sealed his loss

From the archives: Mark Sanford: I lost because I wasn’t Trump enough. All Republicans should worry.

Max Boot: A new poll shows voters aren’t buying what Trump is selling

Jennifer Rubin: Joe Walsh might be just the guy to take on Trump

Henry Olsen: A Mark Sanford campaign will go nowhere fast