The Magazine

Mr. Sununu Goes to Washington

The political philosophy of an actual politician.

Jun 16, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 38 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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American political methodology is an ontological construct. No, I don't know what I'm talking about, but it's true anyway. Political "science"--like that puppy from the same litter, the dismal science of economics--is not science; it's a branch of moral philosophy. Yet try talking moral philosophy with a politician. Politicians will talk strategy and tactics and policies and programs until they're blue in the face, or you strangle them and they turn blue.

The problem on the left is, now that Karl Marx has forsaken them, they have no philosophy. Thank goodness. Think what evil creeps liberals would be if their plans to enfeeble the individual, exhaust the economy, impede the rule of law, and cripple national defense were guided by a coherent ideology instead of smug ignorance. As for our side, conservatism is a gut reaction for most of us, and a done deal for the rest. The moral philosophy of American politics can be explained briefly and clearly, and, the Constitution being written, it has been.

Where is there a philosopher in Washington?

Actually, I was pretty sure I knew where, and never mind that like any intelligent person he didn't major in philosophy. Senator John Sununu (Republican of New Hampshire) earned a BS and an MA in mechanical engineering from MIT, an MBA from Harvard, and a living as a design engineer and manufacturing consultant. His reputation is .  .  . well, as one of his fellow senators said to me, "Don't let anything happen to this boy in the New Hampshire election, otherwise we'll have to argue about who's the smartest person in the Senate." I was willing to bet that Senator Sununu knows that if a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, the government will tax the timber industry and subsidize the purchase of Miracle Ears.

I went to see Senator Sununu at his office in the Russell Building and said that I assumed he had a political philosophy. "I like to think so," he replied. "But it's not something I have written down on an index card."

As a gut reaction conservative myself, I take the senator's point. In fact, however, Senator Sununu could write his political philosophy on a small piece of paper: "I have a deep-seated belief that America is unique, strong, great because of a commitment to personal freedom--in our economic system and our politics. We are a free people who consented to be governed. Not vice-versa." (Italics added for the sake of the multitudes in our government's executive, legislative, and judicial branches who need to fill out that index card and keep it with them at all times. And if the multitudes are confused by "Not vice-versa" they may substitute, We aren't a government that consents to people being free.)

"It's important for politicians to understand," Senator Sununu said, "that the Founders' writings reflect that point of view. From Jefferson to Hamilton, freedom was the special ingredient in human prospects, moral prospects, political prospects. The argument was over what government mechanism would ensure common good and guarantee freedom. There was no argument about whether we were free people. In most parts of the world there never has been an appreciation for that perspective. Governments have evolved to provide greater freedom, to reduce the power of monarchies, to reduce absolute power."

When, indeed, governments have evolved at all. Darwin, if he'd studied Russia instead of Galapagos finches, would have come up with the theory of "survival of the filthiest." Senator Sununu wants a government mechanism without the innumerable moving parts that collect goo and sludge: "Just because something is a good idea doesn't mean it should be a law--let alone a federal law. That's where I begin," he said, "with a firm belief that people in the United States are best served by limited and effective government."

He gave the example of low taxes, but from a philosophical angle--low taxes respect the prerogatives of free people. "Taxes," Senator Sununu said, "are a confiscation of economic power."

Another of the senator's examples was "local governance to the greatest extent possible." The importance of local governance may not be obvious to an America accustomed to treating city and state downfalls with doses of federal comeuppance. Sometimes there's a reason for that--the Civil War. More often, all reasoning seems absent--No Child Left Behind.

But Senator Sununu was arguing mechanical engineering not ratiocination. I knew what he meant because, some months before, I'd discussed the same subject with his father, a former governor of New Hampshire and Bush 41's White House chief of staff, John Sununu. The governor is himself an engineer and no mean political philosopher. Governor Sununu explained the importance of the "short control loop." Your shower faucets are a short control loop. You turn on the cold faucet, the shower is cold. You turn on the hot faucet, the shower is hot. You fiddle with both faucets, and you take a shower. Now imagine your second-story bathroom has its shower faucets in the basement. That's a long control loop. You turn the water on, climb the steps and get in the shower. It's too cold. You wrap yourself in a towel, go down two flights of stairs dripping water all over the house, go back upstairs. It's too hot. You go back downstairs, etc. "If your federal taxes go up," the governor said, "doing something about it is a protracted process. If your local property taxes go up, you walk over to the town tax collector's house and give him a piece of your mind. So who's more likely to raise your taxes? People in Washington? Or people next door?"

Senator Sununu's political philosophy is consensual government of the short control loop kind. Not only does this make government more responsive to us consenters but it also minimizes government's assumptions about the amount of stuff we've consented to.

I asked the senator, "What does this philosophy require from citizens?" He looked stumped.

There are so many easy answers to that question. Enlightened self-interest. Love of country. Tolerance. Inclusiveness. Blah. Blah. Blah. I felt stupid for asking and heartened by the senator's pause. (We were talking about the limitations of government not the limitations of humans, which is another branch of moral philosophy entirely.) It was as if I'd asked a policeman, "Given the responsibilities and restraints of your position as a law officer, what do you believe that criminals should do?" Actually, I apologize again. That's a lousy analogy considering how Senator Sununu's philosophy is based on the idea that Americans are anything but antisocial. But you see what I'm getting at. Given the consent of the governed, political philosophy is all about the consent. What the governed do is their own business, except in the specific areas of life where the governed have agreed to have government. There are no thought crimes, no philosophical felonies, among a free people. Citizens shouldn't break the law if they can help it, but that hardly merits saying.

What Senator Sununu said instead was, "A responsibility that citizens share is to educate themselves before they cast a vote." But he added, "A responsibility does not mean it's a prerequisite."

I asked Senator Sununu if there were many politicians in Washington with a political philosophy. "There are many," he said, "that would make the argument that they have a core set of values. But these values don't reflect a philosophy. Rather, they reflect a personal goal. 'I believe government should be fair and just.' 'I believe government should represent both the strong and the weak in America.' They're describing characteristics of what they'd like the government to be. They aren't describing principles of organizing a government."

Does Senator Sununu find his principles compromised by the American Idol stagecraft of practical politics and its Paula Abdul logic? "Too many politicians," the senator said, "fail to realize that voters are intelligent enough to understand that they can't agree with you about everything. What people want is someone who's thoughtful, direct, and able to explain. Reagan reveled in explaining. Was he 'too simplistic'? He was as deep and thoughtful as any of his contemporaries."

He disparaged the idea that there's anything politically hazardous about moral clarity. "I don't think it's tough to make a principled choice. I don't thing it's tough to explain a principled choice. It's more passionate, more engaged. It resonates with people. A principled choice sounds .  .  ." He hesitated, seeking the right comparison, then sensibly gave up, "more principled."

"Applying the philosophy isn't difficult," he said. "Applying the principles isn't difficult. The Patriot Act, for instance. It was a tool to find and prosecute criminals. Some of the laws we had were outdated. The biggest trouble with the Patriot Act was that the earliest version contained provisions for unlimited detention of suspects.

"Under no circumstances should we be allowed to detain people indefinitely. The provision was dropped, and we put a sunset on the whole Patriot Act. It had to be reauthorized in '05. You make sure, if you're giving powers to law enforcement, they're balanced with powers for civil liberties.

"Guantánamo, on the other hand--even if everything you're doing is legally approved, something can still be implemented in a way that's counterproductive to our moral perspective. We must be right and seem to be right. Guantánamo is a political, diplomatic, and moral liability. Give the Guantánamo detainees access to federal courts to appeal the determination."

The senator said that where government goes astray is with the "institutional momentum that often drives things in a wrong direction. It comes from the natural tendency of public officials to show that they've done something. The easy way to do this is new spending, set-asides, new rules, new regulations. Reform is difficult. Alternatives have to be carefully examined. Legislators have to think hard about unintended consequences. Most of the members of Congress can't even be bothered to go through the process. There's a lack of self-awareness. Too often members of Congress lose sight of how they're viewed by the public."

Senator Sununu gave, as an example, Congressman Don Young (Republican of Alaska) and his 2005 transportation bill set-aside for a $200 million bridge linking Ketchikan (population 7,845) with its airport (six flights a day).

"Also," he said, "it takes a certain humility to realize that all the committee appointments and bill mark-ups and leadership posts that we get so excited about here in Washington don't matter to the public."

Concerning the humbler aspects of politics, I asked the senator about coping with its six-Rotary-lunches-in-one-day routines. How does anyone--who's not a Clinton or a creature from the Clinton Lagoon--endure the business of running for office? For an answer the senator returned to the authors of our system. "I'm intrigued by the notion that most of our country's founders were suspicious of anyone who wanted to hold public office, e.g., Aaron Burr. The Founders retained that suspicion even after they themselves held office. They regarded it as an obligation, not an aspiration."

Was he suspicious of himself? Or did he feel obligated?

"When the New Hampshire House seat came open [in 1996], I looked at the other people who'd announced. I came to the conclusion that if I didn't run, New Hampshire would be represented by another trial lawyer." Good enough for this reporter. (Incidentally Senator Sununu's opponent in this fall's race, former governor Jean Shaheen, is not a trial lawyer--her husband is. Shaheen herself is a veteran of the only institution capable of making our lives more miserable than the law courts. She was a school teacher.)

Then Senator Sununu let me in on a secret known only to a few select Washington insiders. You can get inside the Capitol dome and go all the way to the top. We took the little train that runs from the basement of Russell to the basement of the Capitol building. There we began a climb of 288 feet, first up spiral steps to the base of the dome where we stared down into the rotunda 180 feet below and up at Constantino Brumidi's Apotheosis of Washington. (I wonder if the tourists know just how hot the mythological babes are who surround the Father of Our Country and hover over our commitment to personal freedom--4,664 square feet of rosy bosom and curvaceous hip.)

We went through a little door and along a catwalk to a zig-zagging iron staircase. There are really two Capitol domes, one inside and one outside. We were between them, scampering through the hemispherical iron trusses that were bolted together nearly a century and a half ago. The senator could, of course, explain the structure's design, its stresses, its load-bearing capacity. And he did so without the huffing and puffing that beset his guest. (He's a very fit senator.) We ascended to the dome's apex and stood outside, under the feet of the heroic scale allegorical figure Freedom--an apt place to contemplate consent of the governed.

The view seems to command the world. And sometimes the United States government seems to try to do the same. These are weighty items--the dome, the government, political philosophy. Solid foundations are obviously a must. The dome isn't shaky. But all I can say for the soundness of the other two things is, "Senator John Sununu."

P.J. O'Rourke is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.