Listen to the Smartest Man in the Room | Steve Berman

My brother Jay and I speak almost every morning. Our topics range from prosaic family stuff to the political. New Hampshire is a small state, and if you live there long enough, you get to know certain personalities. We both have connections to the Sununus.

Both Jay and I grew up in the under 20-mile spit of land granite staters call the seacoast. I moved to Georgia in 1992; he stayed. While I went to college at UNH in Durham, one of my friends grew up in Salem, and was neighbors to the Sununus. We’re the same age as the oldest child, John. Dad, John H. Sununu, was governor from just after the time I graduated high school through my college years. While in college, I worked full-time and ran into the governor a few times. I once traded a “First NH Bank” lapel pin for the New Hampshire flag on his lapel—Sununu’s idea, not mine (it’s now in Erick Erickson’s possession).

In 1990, I was working at a company in Nashua, and my cubicle window faced out over a parking lot, on a hill, putting me directly across from the penthouse at the Clarion Inn hotel (now a Doubletree). During primary season, I could see Vice President George H.W. Bush eating breakfast every morning, and count the number of times the same joggers went past my window (Secret Service, and yes, I did have an encounter with them one day, and no it wasn’t on purpose, long story). Since I wore a suit to work, and happened to work late on primary night, I thought it would be a grand idea to saunter over to the shindig at the hotel.

So I crashed Bush’s victory party, wearing the N.H. flag lapel pin, of course. Nobody said a word to me, though I felt that at any moment I’d be frog-marched out of there, gin and tonic in one hand and a chicken wing in the other. Instead of being thrown out, the Secret Service locked down the room; the veep was coming to give his victory speech. And who was there to introduce him? That’s right, chairman of the campaign committee, John Sununu, who was nearly a foot shorter than 6’4” Bush and struggled to speak into the podium mic. And of course he noticed me. After the speech, he bee-lined over and grabbed me, asking “do you want to meet the Vice President?” Sure.

He hustled me to the elevator just as the doors were about to close, Bush inside flanked by Secret Service, and introduced me. “Hi, howya doin?” Bush shook my hand, and the doors closed. The whole thing was rather awkward, which turned out to be a foreshadow of Sununu’s stint in Washington, D.C. And that was the environment where Chris Sununu grew up, went to high school, and got comfortable with the awkwardness of politics.

Like me, Chris followed in his father’s and brother’s footsteps (well, Jay and I went to UNH, neither of us was interested nor qualified to attend MIT). If you don’t know, Gov. John Sununu has a Ph.D. from MIT, and taught as an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Tufts. He’s not surprised when he’s the smartest man in the room. Chris also got his B.S. in civil and environmental engineering from the family alma mater. The big difference between father and son is that the son lacks the awkwardness, and the curmudgeonly professor nature, of the father. In fact, he’s rather funny. Which means that when he’s the smartest man in the room, he doesn’t show it, but you should listen to him just the same.

Jay and I, in our morning talks, have long speculated whether Chris should run for president. I am of the opinion that he needs to run in order to build the network of allies and organization to run again, successfully. Like Reagan, who ran four times, Sununu needs to build his name recognition, and his connections, and I believe the best way to do it is to run, without much expectation of winning. But Sununu the youngest has chosen to sit this one out.

He explains why, himself, in a Washington Post op-ed.

The path to winning was clear, but I believe I can have more influence on the future of the Republican Party and the 2024 nominating process not as a candidate but as the governor of the first-in-the-nation primary state — a governor who is unafraid to speak candidly about issues, candidates and the direction of our party, untethered from the limitations of a presidential campaign and unleashed from conventional boundaries. We must not be complacent, and candidates should not get into this race to further a vanity campaign, to sell books or to audition to serve as Donald Trump’s vice president.

Mincing no words, Chris says what every Republican, even the ones lining up at Mar-a-Lago to kiss the Orange Throne, knows. “If he is the nominee, Republicans will lose again. Just as we did in 2018, 2020 and 2022. This is indisputable, and I am not willing to let it happen without a fight.” It is indeed indisputable. It’s a fever dream of a utopian, progressive wing of the Republican Party that propelled Trump to power in 2016, and they’re unwilling to face the truth.

New Hampshire is a pro-choice state. If you look at the crowd of Republicans who have thrown their hats in the ring, the latest being Mike Pence, you’ll see that they’re all very pro-life, former governors, who tout their state’s opposition to abortion, magnified by restrictive bans. Honestly, while I agree with many of the laws (Georgia’s included) that curb the abortion industry’s ability to target poor and minority women for profitable medical procedures, killing the next generation in the process, Republicans should listen to Chris Sununu.

In 2024, millennials and Gen Zers will be a significant voting bloc. Republicans must not cede this ground. Too often, we have terrible messengers who are focused on the wrong issues. Instead of pushing deeply unpopular and restrictive nationwide abortion bans, Republicans should recognize that every time they open their mouths to talk about banning abortion, an independent voter joins the Democrats. [Emphasis mine.]

Trump is pro-life, but not really. With one side of his mouth, he openly panders to the pro-life crowd, and his judicial appointments arguably were the tipping point that finally overthrew Roe v. Wade. But now that abortion is no longer the singular windmill to tilt at for Republicans, you will see Trump much more pro-choice, which is and has always been his natural inclination. Trump is also very much ahead in the primary polls, including—especially—New Hampshire.

Abortion is not going to win Republican primaries in New Hampshire, or even in Iowa. Trump is extremely, almost preternaturally, good at finding the “button” to push for his core voters, and the ones adjacent. The problem for Republicans is, if Trump knocks off all the other candidates, and stays out of jail (that’s a different story), he could easily win the nomination. Which is an automatic loss for the Republican Party, not only for the White House, but for every office top to bottom on the ballot.

There is no more toxic candidate in America whose negative coattails will depress turnout, and sink the campaigns of Republicans, and genuine conservatives, coast to coast, than Donald Trump. Adding more candidates to the mix is not the answer to keeping Trump from the nomination. The engineer in New Hampshire’s calculations here are 100% correct.

“No one can stop candidates from entering this race, but candidates with no path to victory must have the discipline to get out,” Sununu wrote. “Anyone polling in the low single digits by this winter needs to have the courage to hang it up and head home.” Sununu is polling very well, and never announced, in his home state. If he ran, I think he could win his primary, and could even become a very serious force. But he calculated, and determined that he could not overcome everyone, and therefore Trump would win.

The worst condemnation of Republican candidates’ motives may or may not be true, but Sununu has ears to hear things we don’t: “Too many other candidates who have entered this race are simply running to be Trump’s vice president.” We know Pence isn’t running for this purpose, but is Nikki Haley? Or Chris Christie? Trump has to pick a running mate, if he wins, and by staying out, Sununu has the freedom to call out those he believes are Trumpists in the closet.

As much as I’d like Chris Sununu to run for president (I’d also be fine with my own Gov. Brian Kemp), I think he’s right. Trump must be stopped, and he won’t be stopped by a giant field of candidates necessitating two debate stages like in 2016. It might be Gov. Ron DeSantis—though I don’t have a whole lot of faith in his political ideals—but he’s a long sight better than Trump.

My advice to Republicans, as Jay and I chat in the mornings, is to listen to the smartest guy in the room. To me, it’s pretty clear that’s Chris Sununu.

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.

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