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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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.