At one time, Mark Sanford was one of the rising stars of the Republican Party.  A firm fiscal conservative, the South Carolina governor impressed people with his commitment to ending government pork while working inside the party establishment well enough to become chair of the highly influential Republican Governors Association.  A walk on the wild side with an Argentinian mistress later, along with some bizarre behavior, and Sanford quickly imploded.  He managed to finish his term in office but disappeared from public view immediately afterward, attempting to come to grips with a divorce and humiliation.

ABC News’ Gregory Simmons interviewed Sanford this week, who is looking to make a comeback — but not as a candidate:

Noting a political climate fixated on fiscal restraint, some have said Sanford’s record as a congressman and then as governor of South Carolina show he was “Tea Party before Tea Party was cool.” …

Sanford disappeared from the public eye after his term as governor ended in January and has only recently re-emerged. In the past two weeks, he has appeared on a few political talk shows and given several media interviews, saying repeatedly he is deeply troubled by the spending trajectory of the United States, an anxiety he cites as the impetus for his decision to speak out once more:

“I still care deeply about the fiscal path of this county,” Sanford said. “I have been relatively sequestered but I spent 20 years of my life immersed in these issues. I have a lot of thoughts specifically on the debt and spending.”

Sanford said the Tea Party is “onto something.”

“They are certainly tapping into underlying angst,” he said. “There is a deep anxiety driving the Tea Party that I think is justified. It’s a question of equity and whether life will ever return to the way it was before. I think their instincts are right on about sustainability.”

The former governor admitted that transitioning back into the media spotlight has been difficult, saying, “I am climbing out of my cocoon. It’s pretty scary and I don’t want to get my head chopped off again. I don’t know where my life goes next but I do know that hiding out on a farm doesn’t get you there.”

In terms of any political future, Sanford was frank in his assessment. “I’m a realist and I see my options being very limited,” he said of his political future.

I’m one of those who see Sanford as something of a Greek tragedy.  As a principled fiscal conservative, Sanford was Tea Party before Rick Santelli’s rant launched the movement in early 2009.  Sanford famously carried two piglets into a South Carolina legislative session to protest the budget produced by both parties, outraging legislators that overrode Sanford’s line-item vetoes — more than a hundred of them — but making his point with voters, who rewarded Sanford with a second term.  (He named the piglets “Pork” and “Barrel”.)  Sanford went on the road spreading the conservative philosophy of small government and fiscal discipline and looked like the kind of Republican who could both challenge the establishment and work within it for real change.

Unfortunately, Sanford completely undid himself with his affair.  It wasn’t the affair itself that created Sanford’s problem; politicians have had affairs and survived them, most notably and notoriously Bill Clinton, who not only had an affair with an intern but lied about it under oath.  Sanford mysteriously disappeared from the state without anyone knowing where he was, leaving his staff to tell the press that he was hiking on Appalachian trails when he was really out of the country with his girlfriend.  He abandoned his post and the trust of South Carolina voters, and then made a series of strange media appearances that completely undermined confidence in his leadership and raised questions about his mental state.

I hope that Sanford is in a better frame of mind, because when he speaks about fiscal conservatism, he is a compelling and inspiring figure.  But it will take a lot of work to make people forget the summer of 2009, and that goes straight to his credibility no matter what role he wants to take in politics.  Sanford is right to conclude that he has no real future as a candidate, but if he’s past his strange midlife crisis, he could provide some intellectual firepower as an activist for the limited-government movement.