Rudderless Sununu

Published: 05-15-2023 9:09 AM

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen recently told a Boston television station that New Hampshire voters are too independent-minded to back Donald Trump in 2024. Recalling that Donald Bolduc, a certified conspiracy theorist and election denier, got 44.5% of the vote in his 2022 losing effort to unseat Shaheen’s Senate colleague, Maggie Hassan, we’re not so sure.

But Gov. Chris Sununu will be in good position to test Shaheen’s proposition if he ultimately mounts a presidential campaign of his own next year — a decision he says he will make by late June. A Republican serving his fourth term, the affable Sununu, 48, undeniably remains popular with Granite State voters, having won re-election by 15 percentage points last time out. This is no mean electoral accomplishment in a purple state where the entire congressional delegation consists of Democrats.

Still, Trump leads widely in national and New Hampshire polling, and will be very hard to beat, even if he’s running against a favorite son and even if he has to change his campaign theme song to “He’s a jolly good felon.”

Disappointingly, the burden of Sununu’s critique so far is that Trump is a three-time election loser — the 2018 midterms, the 2020 presidential election, and the 2022 midterms — and that Republicans need to move on if they want to capture the White House. That may be true enough, but it is not exactly the ringing condemnation of election denial or fomenting an insurrection that many independent voters would like to hear. In fact, Sununu says he would back Trump again if he’s the nominee.

As his stance toward Trump indicates, Sununu does not pursue a middle way so much as he tries to have it both ways. Another example is abortion rights: When he’s addressing an anti-abortion audience, he emphasizes that he signed into law New Hampshire’s first restriction on the procedure, a ban after 24 weeks. At other times, he describes himself as strongly pro-choice.

Sununu trumpets his promotion of conservative tenets such as limited government, local control and individual responsibility. It appears to us that the governor believes strongly in local control, except when he doesn’t. For example, he wants municipalities to assume the primary role in dealing with homelessness, but seems perfectly comfortable dictating to local school boards curriculum decisions such as a ban on teaching “divisive concepts.”

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As to limited government, he proposed recently to commandeer the resources of private nonprofit hospitals and require them to help shoulder state government’s responsibility to treat people suffering from mental illness who are involuntarily admitted to the system.

He also is enthusiastic about diverting taxpayer dollars from public education and lavishing them on private school tuition and home schooling. The decision to send children to a private school or educate them at home is a prime example of individual choice for which parents must assume responsibility; why Sununu thinks that choice should be subsidized by the taxpayers at the behest of big state government is a mystery.

And there is his Second Amendment absolutism. Appearing at the National Rifle Association’s annual leadership meeting in April, days after mass shootings in Louisville and Nashville, the governor touted his pro-gun record, including signing into law so-called “constitutional carry” rights and his veto of a red flag law. He also noted that New Hampshire passed a law prohibiting state and local law enforcement agencies in New Hampshire from cooperating with the federal government to enforce gun restrictions, in effect telling the feds to “shove it. We are not doing it. We are not doing it.” {We note, though, that his distaste for the big, bad federal government did not extend to turning down millions of dollars in financial aid to the state during the pandemic.)

“I’m a conservative, I’m just not an extremist,” Sununu told The New York Times. “Sometimes people confuse conservative with extremist.”

Actually, there’s no confusion. The modern Republican Party is wholly responsible for making the terms synonymous in the public mind, which raises the question of whether there is a “moderate” lane for Sununu to run in next year.

To find such a lane, he will need to make a clean break with Trump and Trumpism and actually propose some new ideas, something the GOP hasn’t done since Ronald Reagan. Because at this point, Republicans stand for nothing much beyond further enriching the already wealthy, continuing to despoil the environment, dictating women’s reproductive choices and persecuting minorities.