Column: Nikki Haley’s Slavery Gap Is a Rare Misstep by a Good Politician

Nikki Haley gave a bad answer to an easy question: What caused the Civil War?

She responded with a word salad about freedom and the role of government, without mentioning 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 that it would not have happened if it were not for the issue of slavery.

I think he was wrong for three interrelated reasons: he thought the question was a “gotcha” and he thought too hard about how to respond; she relied on muscle memory from his days in South Carolina; and, finally, 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 libertarian tendencies of the audience.

The timing was unfortunate. The gaffe came amid one of the slowest weeks for news, giving the political class something to talk about as Haley tried to convince Republican primary voters that she is the only candidate who can win that much. to Donald Trump, the favorite of the Republican Party, as to Donald Trump. Joe Biden. Instead of taking advantage of her recent momentum, she was forced to spend days explaining herself. (Disclosure: my wife worked as a speechwriter at the United Nations.)

But the mistake, which I think was fairly minor, stood out for another reason. These mistakes are rare for the most disciplined candidate in the race. More significantly, by obviously trying to cater to what the audience (and questioner) wanted to hear, rather than simply saying what she believes, she fueled the perception that she is nothing more than a politician.

And “political” has become a dirty word in American politics, particularly on the right.

Of course, this is an old story. Many politicians have stated that their main qualification for holding office is not to be political. Before Donald Trump won as a business dealmaker, that trick 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 military outsiders.

But the obsessions of the right today are qualitatively different. Intoxicated by 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 think “victories” should be achieved through sheer will, not compromise (an odd 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 labels. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were the two most effective politicians of my life. But Reagan largely managed to avoid that label, while Clinton’s political skills seemed to reflect a character deficiency. Still, say what you will about either of them, they both understood that politics is about pursuing the politically possible by persuading voters, winning elections (not only for themselves but for their parties), and promoting political objectives through a process inherently political.

Nikki Haley is a good politician. She was the only politician to work for the Trump administration and emerged from it with its enhanced reputation and popularity. I don’t like everything she’s done to maintain her viability as a presidential candidate among the various factions of the Republican Party and the broader electorate, but it’s hard to question the political skill she’s long demonstrated.

While her error on slavery stands out because she is not prone to mistakes, even her reflexive avoidance when discussing slavery is a vestige of her past political success. The South Carolina Republican Party is full of people who cling to Civil War views of the “lost cause” and “war between the states.” She had to navigate those waters as the daughter of Indian immigrants. That’s why the idea that her stumble into slavery betrayed hidden racism is so silly. Appointing Tim Scott, South Carolina’s first African-American senator, in 2012 is not the act of a closet neo-Confederate.

Remember she didn’t have the power. to delete she single-handedly hoisted the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state legislature in 2015. She had to persuade many politicians and constituents who were passionately opposed to the idea. Haley’s success then was driven by her conviction, but it was only possible because she is a good politician, a quality she should not be held against.


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