Punching right against Republican ultras? No doubt: In media appearances, Sununu reliably distances himself from culture warriors, election deniers and anyone who would wink at political violence like last year’s attack on Paul Pelosi. Book the New Hampshire governor on a Beltway interview show or make him the subject of a lengthy profile in an elite publication and you’ll hear him deride Trumpism as an electoral “loser” or denounce the Republican “echo chamber.” But he’s also apt to make somewhat less familiar critiques — decrying the failures of the 2017-2018 GOP political trifecta, say, or taking a “Face the Nation” shot at Ron DeSantis, whose battle with Disney over the firm’s allegedly woke priorities he described as “the worst precedent in the world” (because it violates free-market principles).
Paeans to bipartisanship? Naturally — and, better yet, they come couched in reflections on the can-do culture demanded by being governor of a small state, working in the sort of cooperative political milieu permanent Washington’s media brass tends to fetishize. Sununu speaks in Lincolnesque terms about the workings of New Hampshire’s Executive Council, the bipartisan body that governors must consult about all but the smallest contracts and requires people to debate in close proximity. In one recent interview, he said the job of leaders right now is to “take down the heat” inflaming American politics.
Given this record, you might be thinking it’s just about time for Sununu to get himself invited to give remarks at one of those backslappy Washington galas that draw members of the elite media and their insider guests. In fact, Sununu, overachiever that he is, touched that station of the cross an entire year ago. Donning white tie and tails, he brought down the house at the annual dinner of the Gridiron Club with a routine that included calling Trump “fucking crazy,” to the delight of an audience that included Anthony Fauci, Merrick Garland, Adam Schiff and a paltry two GOP legislators.
“I don’t think he’s so crazy that you could put him in a mental institution,” Sununu went on. “But I think if he were in one, he ain’t getting out.”
Do Sununu’s zingers make you snort? Does his willingness to point fingers at his own side make you swoon? If so, then there’s an above-average chance that you are a college-educated person who works within one or two degrees of separation from Washington’s political industry.
As the favorite Republican of institutional Washington, Sununu joins some august company: People like former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich once occupied the spot. But it was truly defined by the late Sen. John McCain, who melded purported straight talk, an accommodating team of media schedulers and a willingness to decry his own party’s wacko birds to turn himself into a Beltway crush for the ages.
One of the other things those men all had in common, of course, is that none of them became president — a pretty good indication that even in the good old days before anyone talked about swamps and mass-media implosions and million-follower social media accounts, the Beltway media club’s power to influence voters went only so far.
If anything, the path from green room ubiquity to White House residency is even harder today: Back when McCain’s love affair with the media was in full flower, fellow GOP candidates were jealous that he was hogging so much air time. Nowadays, in a party whose leading figures often limit themselves to conservative media, there’s a solid argument that Republican candidates who play nice with the enemies of the people are actively hurting their primary chances. (This same dynamic lowers the bar for Washington’s esteem: At a time when the smart GOP strategy seems to be staying away from old-fashioned bipartisan institutions, it’s even easier to win esteem by simply saying yes to an invite.)
But I’m not trying to handicap the presidential race here. I’m trying to understand something about what does and doesn’t work in a Washington ecosystem where, for all of the self-reflection brought on by the fury of the Trump years, Sununu helps show that the things that push the buttons of permanent Washington have remained pretty constant: bipartisanship, fiscal flintiness, cultural toleration, respect for institutions and above all the willingness to take sides against your own team.
In fact, Sununu has serious competition for the McCain slot in the current political lineup. There’s a possibility that Liz Cheney, subject of fulsome praise by those who admire telegenic political bravery, will do something. More likely, he’ll face two former GOP governors, Maryland’s Larry Hogan and Arkansas’ Asa Hutchinson, who have also leaned even more heavily into anti-Trump politics than Sununu, who for all his criticism says he’d vote for the former president again if he were the nominee. Both are also frequent TV guests who know how to pivot from politics questions to soliloquies about how governors are too busy solving problems to get involved in cable-TV political nastiness. That’s a not-especially-credible assertion given that America’s gubernatorial ranks also include culture warriors like Kristi Noem or (Hutchinson’s successor) Sarah Huckabee Sanders, but it’s the kind of thing that goes over brilliantly in media hits.
Still, while permanent Washington loves an apostate, it also rewards smart politics — and, in the current GOP, the two ex-governors’ complete break with Trump doesn’t seem like a winning move. Which leaves Sununu, who has enough of the partisan in him that, in a long, fun sit-down with my colleague Ryan Lizza, he repeatedly referenced the “Democrat party,” a back-bencher tic that suggests he’s more than the kumbaya candidate.
There are times when it can seem like Sununu was lab-designed to stroke the erogenous zones of Beltway careerists. Unlike Hogan (from blue Maryland) or Hutchinson (from red Arkansas), he comes from swing-state New Hampshire, a place that rewards flinty independence and doesn’t incentivize Republicans to take strong culture war positions that alienate elites. It also just happens to be the state where the McCain model of pundit-lionized Republican tends to thrive in the primaries, before coming back to Earth when the contests shift to more traditionally partisan states. (Sununu describes himself as a pro-choice Republican, though he says nice things about the Dobbs decision sending the issue back to the states.)
Sununu also profiles like a gregarious guy who genuinely enjoys mixing it up in the game of politics — a happy-warrior affect that enables him to not sound like a scold even when he’s quite clearly scolding Republicans for extremism, or Democrats for the same thing. No one likes a wet blanket. Signing off a “Meet the Press” interview last fall, he responded to Chuck Todd’s farewell by saying “thank you, brother,” and it felt like a popular jock taking a moment to high-five a lowly nerd. In a culture whose tastes are more often set by former nerds than former jocks, that kills.
As a chief executive who makes a show of his executiveness (which makes for a convenient way to slam Joe Biden, a career senator who never ran anything until he became president), Sununu also embraces the opportunity to take shots at Washington. The commentariat tends to admire decisions like Sununu’s choice not to enter last year’s Senate race, especially as that choice infuriated professional GOP operatives who knew he could have won the seat for the party. “This whole town gives me the chills sometimes,” he told CBS this winter, adding, “I can explain to folks in Washington what a balanced budget actually means.”
Perhaps this tone bothers some denizens of the capital, many of whom have a granular understanding of the federal budget and how it differs from that of the nation’s 42nd-largest state. But the barbs are just as likely to please the Beltway’s masochistic streak. There’s nothing quite as Washington as publicly hating Washington. And if anyone should know, it’s Sununu. He may bleed granite, but he’s the son of a former White House chief of staff and a graduate of Northern Virginia’s legendarily selective Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, perhaps the DMV’s most prestigious public school. (He says he was furious at his parents for making him move away from New Hampshire.) His father also went on to host Crossfire. The man knows his Beltway political television.
Should Sununu have to suffer politically just because he has the sort of style and biography that flatters a certain type of Washington media agenda-setter? Of course not. And if he’s an optimist, he might even note that another perennial GOP-primary archetype — the wacky outsider with no political experience who soars in early polls by throwing politically inflammatory TV brickbats, a la Herman Cain in 2012 — was also assumed until recently to be forever doomed. Then Trump came along.
The bigger risk, maybe, is that being the favorite of the opinion elite makes you a less iconoclastic politician. You get invited on shows precisely because they know you’ll commit apostasy. You’re obliged to speak too much about Very Important Issues, which are disappointingly rare in public forums precisely because they tend not to move voters. You have a harder time getting quoted when there’s some big, lowbrow controversy afoot since that’s the one time rivals will agree to speak out — and variety demands that the others get coverage. The things that made you seem unusual become familiar. Media esteem is fleeting.
Luckily for him, Sununu has an out that some of the previous Washington heartthrobs lacked: an actual job — the sort of thing that makes for a very earnest-sounding talking point when the political questions start. “I’ve got a state to run,” he told “This Week” recently, when talk turned to his potential candidacy. “Unlike Congress, I don’t get vacation. It’s a 24/7 job, 365. Unlike Congress, I have to balance a budget in the next couple of months. Unlike Congress, I just have a lot of demands on me and I love that. It’s a hard job but, man, it is so fulfilling when you get stuff done.”