Why John Sununu Is Romney's Favorite Attack Dog

In questioning Obama's Americanness on Tuesday, the perpetually overheated John Sununu wasn't that far off Mitt Romney's regular message.

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Stop the presses -- John Sununu said something over-the-top.

The 73-year-old former governor of New Hampshire, a top surrogate for Mitt Romney, told reporters on a conference call Tuesday, "I wish this president would learn how to be an American." He also said President Obama comes from "that murky political world in Chicago where politician and felon has become synonymous," and brought up what he described as a "smarmy" real estate deal with convicted felon Tony Rezko. And he called the Obama campaign "stupid" and "a bunch of liars."

Before the call was even over, Sununu was backpedaling on the "learn how to be an American" bit, saying that what he meant was that "the president has to learn the American formula for creating business," which is not government-driven but creating "a climate where entrepreneurs can thrive." But it was hardly an isolated outburst. Earlier in the day, Sununu had posited that Obama's lack of appreciation for the American system of job creation stemmed from the fact that he president "spent his early years in Hawaii smoking something."

No one should be shocked to hear this kind of language from Sununu. He's long been the Romney campaign's designated attack dog and provocateur, from calling Newt Gingrich "self-serving" in December to decrying Rick Santorum's "emotional outbursts" in March. Sununu's trademark bluster follows a famously undisciplined career as White House chief of staff under President George H.W. Bush, a job he left under fire in 1991 after such memorable stunts as taking a military jet for a trip to the dentist and a taxpayer-funded limousine to attend an auction of rare stamps.

When the Romney campaign wants to make headlines by going aggressively on the offensive, it summons Sununu, and he never fails to oblige. Sununu's occasional gaffes are the price of admission; they may even be desirable for a campaign trying desperately to change the subject. If you want the fire of Sununu's passion, you have to accept a burned-down building every once in a while.

The question is whether, in describing Obama as un-American, the Cuban-born Greek-Palestinian Sununu crossed a line, dog-whistling to those on the fringes who persist in believing that the president wasn't born in the United States. But even the Obama campaign didn't see it as that sinister. Campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith issued a statement accusing Sununu of having "gone off the deep end" -- more of an eye-roll than a denunciation.

But it would also be a mistake to see this as the singular case of a particularly undisciplined surrogate. If it's out of bounds to imply that Obama is less than fully American, Romney has been treading close to the line for quite some time. He frequently asserts that the president "doesn't understand America," a claim that, like Sununu's, comes in the context of accusing Obama of insufficiently appreciating entrepreneurial capitalism, but carries other overtones as well.

Sununu, Romney, and plenty of other Republicans really do believe that Obama harbors a deeply un-American worldview -- one that sees the amassing of wealth as suspect and favors a more communitarian society. Sununu may have articulated it particularly artlessly on Tuesday. But he wasn't so much going off message as taking Romney's message to its logical conclusion.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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