Happy New Year to all!
Nikki Haley gave a bad answer to an easy question: What caused the Civil War?
She replied with a word salad on freedom and the role of government while failing to mention the word “slavery” at all.
We don’t need to dwell on why it was a bad answer. The Civil War is a complicated topic, but the simple truth is it wouldn’t have occurred but for the issue of slavery.
I think she messed up for three interrelated reasons: She thought the question was a “gotcha” and overthought how to respond; she was relying on muscle memory from her days in South Carolina; and, last, because she was campaigning in New Hampshire—the “Live Free or Die” state—and she was trying to cater to what she thought were the audience’s libertarian tendencies.
The timing was unfortunate. The gaffe occurred in the middle of the slowest of slow news weeks, providing the political class something to talk about as Haley was trying to convince Republican primary voters she’s the only candidate who can beat both Donald Trump, the runaway GOP frontrunner, and Joe Biden. Rather than build on her recent momentum, she was forced to spend days explaining herself. (Disclosure: I know Haley through my wife, who worked as her speechwriter at the U.N.)
But the flub—which I think was fairly minor—stood out for another reason. Such missteps are rare for the most disciplined candidate in the race. More significantly, by obviously trying to cater to what the audience—and the questioner—wanted to hear, rather than just say what she believes, she fed the perception that she is nothing more than a politician.
And “politician” has become a dirty word in American politics, particularly on the right.
Of course, this is an old story. Many politicians have claimed their chief qualification for office is that they’re not a politician. Before Donald Trump won as a dealmaking businessman, that schtick was tried by Ross Perot, Mitt Romney, Carly Fiorina, Steve Forbes, Herman Cain, Wendell Willkie, and Herbert Hoover (who also ran as “the Great Engineer”). Andrew Jackson and Dwight Eisenhower ran as outsider military men.
But the right’s obsessions today are qualitatively different. Drunk on anti-establishment, anti-“deep state” rhetoric that borders on the paranoid, many on the right see being a good politician as a form of collaboration with the enemy. Some even think that “wins” should be achieved through raw will, not through compromise (a weird sentiment for those who celebrate what a great “dealmaker” Trump is).
It’s a strange form of cognitive dissonance. Americans want effective politicians, but we don’t like truth in labeling. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were the two most effective politicians of my lifetime. But Reagan largely succeeded in avoiding the label, while Clinton’s political skills seemed to reflect a character deficiency. Still, say what you will of either man, they both understood that politics is about pursuing the politically possible by persuading voters, winning elections—not just for themselves but for their parties—and advancing policy goals through an inherently political process.
Nikki Haley is a good politician. She was the only politician who worked for the Trump administration to leave it with her reputation and popularity enhanced. I don’t like everything she’s done to maintain her viability as a presidential candidate among the various GOP factions and the broader electorate, but it’s hard to question the political skill she has long displayed. Her slavery gaffe stands out because she emerged as a top contender in the chaotic GOP debates.
While her slavery gaffe is glaring because she’s not gaffe-prone, even her reflexive avoidance in talking about slavery is a vestige of her past political success. The South Carolina GOP is full of people who cling to “lost cause” and “war between the states” views of the Civil War. She had to navigate those waters as a daughter of Indian immigrants. That’s why the idea that her slavery stumble gaffe betrayed hidden racism is so lame. Appointing Tim Scott, the first African American senator from South Carolina, as she did in 2012 is not the act of a closet neo-Confederate. Recall that she didn’t have the power to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds on her own in 2015. She had to persuade a lot of politicians and constituents passionately opposed to the idea. Haley’s success then was driven by conviction, but it was only possible because she’s a good politician. Grown-ups shouldn’t hold that against her.