A scandal-plagued former governor who was once considered a potential presidential contender for 2012 is instead standing on the periphery, reflecting on what might have been and watching as the Republican primary field continues to take shape.
"A number of my friends have called this a Greek tragedy," former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford said of his absence from the 2012 GOP primary race.
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."
He was, for example, the first governor to issue a letter to the White House rejecting about $8 billion of stimulus funds. "I've been saying this stuff for years," Sanford said.
It has been a little more than two years since Sanford stood before the media and confessed to an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman. Once mentioned as a presidential candidate, the unfolding scandal, which included a week-long disappearance, torpedoed Sanford's bright political future. While Sanford was able to weather impeachment proceedings and calls for his resignation, his wife divorced him and he resigned as Chairman of the Republican Governor's Association.
Sanford described his actions leading up the scandal as "pouring gasoline all over myself and lighting a match."
Once it became evident his marriage had suffered beyond redemption, Sanford said he was determined to "finish strong as governor." He calls his final 18 months in office his "most productive season."
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.
"So much has been damaged and destroyed through what I did," Sanford continued. "My dad taught me to never say never, but I can't really see a way back as a candidate given my warts. I think what I can do is have an influence on ideas, on the conversation. Anyone who has ever failed, your prayer is for a second chance, for the ability to use your talents even if it's in a more limited way."
Even as the process of his re-emergence continues, Sanford continues to spend most of his time on his family farm near Beaufort, S.C., "building things" with his four boys. Immersed in "a monastic sort of existence," Sanford said he is in the process of writing a memoir, which he began writing in the governor's mansion after the scandal broke and expects to finish sometime next year.
"It's what I believe and why I believe it; it's about my politics," Sanford said.
Sanford says the heart of the memoir is about establishing a legacy for his sons.
"I was alone and thinking I don't want my boys to think all those Saturdays they gave up for parades and events were for nothing." he said. "I wanted them to understand where I came from politically and ideologically. I didn't want the scandal to be all that is remembered about my time as governor. They've invested their lives in my career as well. I want them understand what was behind it."