Late Tuesday evening, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will spell out the Republican Party’s vision for the future of America.
It’s not difficult to see why House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell picked Haley to deliver the GOP response to President Obama’s final State of the Union address. As South Carolina’s first Indian American governor, the 43-year-old lends credibility to the GOP’s ongoing, sometimes tortured attempt to prove it can appeal to women, minorities, and younger voters.
Haley won widespread praise by calling for removal of the Confederate flag from state capitol grounds after a deadly shooting at a black church in Charleston last summer. She styles herself a leader capable of healing a divided nation. She advertises her brand of Republican politics as something new and different.
News that Haley had been tapped to deliver the address has sparked speculation over her potential as a vice-presidential contender. On Monday, Ryan gushed to CNN: “If you want to hear an inclusive leader who’s visionary, who’s got a path for the future, who’s brought people together, who’s unified, it’s Nikki Haley.”
For the Republican Party, Haley seems like an antidote to Donald Trump. The governor helps inoculate the party against criticism aimed at the Republican presidential frontrunner. Trump’s calls for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and rebuke of unauthorized immigrants have risked alienating voters. Haley, on the other hand, invokes her background as the daughter of immigrants to stress tolerance. She has criticized her party for taking a tone that “often appears cold and unwelcoming to minorities,” warning: “That’s shameful and that has to change.”
At the same time, Haley advocates a policy agenda likely to tap into the same vein of conservative support that several presidential contenders—including Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio—have successfully mined. The governor signed off on some of the strictest immigration laws in the country, took a stand against Syrian refugees, resisted calls for gun control in the wake of the Charleston church shooting, and has voiced criticism of Black Lives Matter. Haley has the potential to elevate an agenda that mirrors some of the most conservative stances of the Republican 2016 field, and without the liabilities of a candidate like Trump.
Haley is a skilled politician, not an idealistic reformer. The governor avoided a fight over the Confederate flag until, in the wake of the Charleston shooting, that was no longer politically tenable. She could have taken a stand a year earlier during her 2014 reelection campaign, when her Democratic challenger raised the issue during a debate. The governor declined, citing the fact that corporate interests she hoped to attract to the state did not seem bothered by it. As long as the flag didn’t threaten economic prosperity, it could stay. To the extent that Haley engaged arguments against the flag, she focused on South Carolina’s image, steering clear of a discussion of racial inequity. “Perception of South Carolina matters,” Haley said during the 2014 debate, adding: “But we really kind of fixed all that when you elected the first Indian American, female governor.”
The following year, Haley called for the flag to be removed from the state capitol grounds after a gunman killed nine people at a black church in Charleston. She framed her decision in personal terms, saying “I could not look my kids in the face and justify that flag anymore.” Still, economic interests again appeared important to her calculations. The Chamber of Commerce was starting to ask questions. Haley faced pressure from business leaders. On top of that, Republican presidential candidates were beset with controversy over the flag, making the GOP’s national leaders appear uncertain at a time of crisis. Haley seized the moment, proving that she could act decisively to take a potential political problem off the table for her party. Removing the flag satisfied the public demand for action. It also directed the conversation away from gun control, a debate the GOP was eager to avoid.
Haley’s blend of strategic consistency and tactical savvy elevated her national standing. “She saw an opportunity and saw a spotlight on South Carolina and saw that there were going to be real significant problems for the state and the Republicans if they couldn't bring it down,” Republican consultant Katie Packer Gage told CNN after the flag came down. “She stepped up, and it didn’t take her weeks or months, even though she could have punted. She is a smart politician.”
During Obama’s tenure, the Republican response to the State of the Union has often featured a politician picked to showcase the party’s diversity. In past years, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Joni Ernst, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers have gotten the nod.
That hasn’t, however, achieved much of a course correction for the GOP. And being asked to deliver the response to the State of the Union is no guarantee of future success in politics. The image of Rubio’s awkward sip of water during his response has followed him around the campaign trail. Bobby Jindal likely won’t soon forget the unflattering comparisons to 30 Rock’s Kenneth the page after his 2009 State of the Union response. The question now is whether Haley will prove to be any different.