Mark Sanford isn’t the first presidential candidate to visit Oakland in the run-up to 2020. Democratic hopefuls Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke have made visits of their own. But none of them took the concept of retail politicking quite as far as Sanford, a South Carolina Republican who previously served as the state’s governor and representative in Congress.
Instead of a rally, Sanford spent his time in Oakland talking with reporters, and approaching voters on street corners and in Forbes Avenue restaurants.
“Can I be rude and interrupt your baby?” he asked one couple waiting with their infant to cross the street, before chatting briefly and offering a campaign brochure. In a college eatery several minutes later, he presented a table with an oversized check – made out to “Burden of Future Generations” – for $1 trillion, symbolizing the federal deficit under President Trump.
Sanford is one of three Republicans running against an incumbent President who is hugely popular in his own party; the other dissidents are former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh and onetime Massachusetts governor William Weld. Sanford has to take voters where he finds them, and while he launched his bid last month, he’s under few illusions about his prospects.
“I’m a realist,” he said during an interview in a college eatery. “Everybody else says, ‘I’m here to win it.’ I’m like, ‘What? Let’s be real.’ I’m not delusional about what’s happened to the last five folks who tried to challenge a sitting president of their own party. But there is a value in trying to create this conversation, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Sanford says that Trump’s reckless approach to governing – which he says is reflected in everything from his Twitter wars to the spiraling deficits of his administration– poses three existential threats to the country.
"One: spending yourself to death has historically killed off civilizations and has the capacity to kill off the American Dream. Disregarding the political norms and institutions that our founding fathers gave us, would come at great detriment to our ability to sustain the American dream and our civilization. And finally, this tribalism is going to kill us as a country.”
Oakland was the third stop on a nationwide tour that began in Philadelphia Wednesday, and will ultimately take Sanford to California. He's calling it the “Kids, We’re Bankrupt and We Didn’t Even Know It Tour," and it’s an effort to foreground his concern about deficits, which are reaching 10-digit sums despite a prosperous economy.
Sanford said that prosperity is itself built on an illusion, inflated by deficits that are unsustainable: “It’s like the family that lives down the street and you say, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re so prosperous, how do they do it?’ Well it turns out they jacked up the credit card and they created the illusion of wealth that isn’t really there. That’s what we’ve been doing.”
Sanford is also critical of Trump's handling of foreign policy in places like Syria, where the withdrawal of U.S. troops has laid the groundwork for a Turkish invasion of areas held by America’s Kurdish allies. “The last thing in the world that you want is foreign policy that is capricious,” he said. “And yet that’s exactly what this is. We create a crisis based on our foreign policy, create a void. Turkey moves in to fill that void, along with Russia, and now we say ‘OK, if you don’t do something different, we’re going slap a bunch of tariffs on you,' on the problem that we just created.”
Sanford’s criticism of Trump may echo what Democratic contenders have been saying on debate stages for months, but on bedrock issues like abortion and fiscal policy, he's a lifelong conservative. And he’s perhaps best known for a 2009 scandal in which, as governor, he apparently disappeared from the capitol. Staff originally said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, though it was eventually revealed that he was having an extramarital affair with an Argentinian journalist. Sanford was later elected to Congress anyway, a job that ended when he joined a handful of Republicans who vocally opposed Trump. That prompted Trump to back conservative Katie Arrington in South Carolina’s 2018 primary.
“He came against me, shot me in the head,” is how Sanford described his subsequent loss.
But he said polls and pundits overstate Trump’s support, citing the 2018 election – in which Democrats seized control of the House with help from many traditionally Republican voters – as proof that “There is a measure of Trump fatigue setting in.”
“Young millennials, working moms, soccer moms in suburban areas turned away in droves and said, ‘Whatever is going on here is not consistent with what I’ve been trying to teach my kids, or what my parents have been trying to teach me.' There’s a surprising audience of people that I run across that say, ‘We have got to try something different.”
On issues like climate change, Sanford struck what sounded like a moderate note. “Sadly, the Republican Party, which I have invested 25 years of my life in, essentially says [climate change] doesn’t exist. And I’m like, are you kidding me? We can go up here to the hospital, and these scientists can do amazing things. … If you believe in modern medicine, and the science that makes it possible, wouldn’t you extend that to the rest of the earth that we live in? But that’s like crazy talk in Republican circles these days.”
But Sanford parted ways with Democrats by urging an energy policy that encouraged nuclear power. And while many Trump skeptics blast Trump’s 2017 tax cuts as both a contributing factor to both wealth inequality and rising deficits, Sanford demurred.
“Our problem is on the spending side,” said Sanford, who voted in favor of the tax cuts.
Sanford himself hedged on whether he would vote for Trump should Democrats back a candidate as far to the left as Vermont's Bernie Sanders.
“That would be a tough one for me,” Sanford said, “simply because spending is my thing and Bernie has come up with some rather innovative proposals on that front.”
But fundmantally, Sanford’s campaign appears mostly directed at Republicans; it's an effort to call rank-and-file voters to the conservative values that were once central to the party’s identity, and to the conversations he said he’s had with voters over the past quarter-century.
“Either those conversations were real … or everybody out there got a frontal lobotomy or they’ve just disappeared and been sent to Mars,” he said.
His tour continues Thursday in Columbus, Ohio.