The Ever-Erratic Nikki Haley’s National Prospects Rise Again

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The South Carolina governor's big chance at the national ticket arrives tonight. But can she survive a true vetting?Photo: Sean Rayford/2015 Getty Images

Nikki Haley of South Carolina is currently the youngest governor in the country, and when she delivers the official Republican response to the State of the Union Address, she will be a new (and very telegenic) face for many viewers. But for those who have paid attention to her erratic career, it seems like she’s been around for a long time, representing both promise and peril for her party.  

Early in the 2010 governor’s race, state representative Nikki Haley was a 30-something dark-horse candidate mainly known as a protégé of disgraced governor Mark Sanford (so poor was his reputation that the family endorsement of Haley was offered by Sanford’s aggrieved ex-wife, Jenny Sanford), who was serving out his term after narrowly avoiding impeachment. Though he was mainly known nationally for his libido and his sodden efforts to defend his adulterous behavior, back home, Sanford was a hard-core free-market ideologue perpetually at war less with Democrats than with the old-school Dixiecrats who dominated his own party. The nascent tea-party backing that Sanford squandered by his psychosexual adventures was naturally inherited by Haley. And then she was discovered and endorsed by Sarah Palin as part of her "Mama Grizzly" network of conservative Republican women, and her star began its rapid ascent. Outside South Carolina, she was being noticed as an Indian-American (she is from a prominent Sikh family, but converted to Protestant Christianity well before running for office, though she also continued to attend Sikh ceremonies for a good while) succeeding in an unlikely venue.

Then, just as she began to move up rapidly in the polls in the run-up to the GOP primary, two separate allegations of marital infidelity were hurled at Haley by supposed former lovers. One came from a tabloidish libertarian Palmetto State blogger who had once worked for her and Sanford, and the other from a political consultant close to one of her gubernatorial rivals. In the absence of any real evidence to support the allegations, Haley benefited from a widespread backlash that she and her supporters (including Palin, who showed up personally to defend “your Nikki”) skillfully fed by associating it with the “good old boy” cabal of RINOs running the state GOP. She very nearly won the GOP nomination without a primary, and then crushed McMaster in the runoff. As the air of martyrdom surrounding her dissipated, she had a surprisingly close race in the general election against Democratic state senator Vincent Sheheen, but prevailed in this most Republican state in the most Republican year in living memory. 

As governor, Haley initially disappointed some of her more ideological fans and confirmed the negative impressions of her many detractors in both parties. Though she campaigned as an ethics crusader — a "reformer" against the old boy Establishment, much like Palin in Alaska — she became snarled in her own ethics issues, most notably, a lucrative contract she obtained as a hospital lobbyist while in the state legislature (she was eventually "cleared" of wrongdoing, though mainly because of South Carolina’s very loose legal constraints on conflicts of interest). She also took heat for an embarrassing breach of a state database that exposed South Carolinians to identity theft and other threats to privacy, and (like fellow Indian-American Republican governor Bobby Jindal) has been stymied in her ambitious proposal to junk the state income tax for a higher sales tax. 

But Haley’s political condition has most of all been associated with the condition of her state’s economy, and as the latter has improved (arguably no thanks to her), so has the former. She probably rivals former Texas governor Rick Perry in her advocacy of the ancient race-to-the-bottom southern strategy of economic development via raiding “job creators” by minimizing business costs. And Haley has no peer in demonizing unions as a centerpiece of South Carolina’s pitch to corporations seeking compliant workers and public officials. She makes Scott Walker look like Eugene Debs, having appointed a union-busting management attorney as her state labor department director, and she publicly announced that there’s no place in her state for private-sector unions, or even for companies that tolerate them.

While an improving economy and an easy-to-understand economic philosophy of subservience to business interests have steadily improved Haley’s job-approval ratings in her conservative state (she had a much-easier-than-expected rematch against Vincent Sheheen in 2014), what has again made her a national figure was her exceptionally well-timed intervention in South Carolina’s perennial race-drenched controversy over the display of the Confederate Battle Flag on state property. 

Haley’s reputation as a brave path-blazer on this subject is entirely unearned; Georgia governor Zell Miller nearly sacrificed his career over the subject back in 1993, as did Haley’s Republican predecessor David Beasley in 1997. But without question, her unambiguous decision to push for removal of the flag after the Charleston massacre earlier this year resolved the situation much more rapidly than would otherwise have been the case, and earned her praise even from Democrats. Aside from showing she had previously undiscerned political chops, the incident once again aligned Haley’s public career with her biography, as she talked about suffering discrimination as an Asian-American child in a small southern town. For a party longing to reach out to new constituencies while doubling down on conservative ideology, an Indian-American woman who slew the ghost of the Confederacy between attacks on godless union bosses may be as good as it gets. 

And that’s why her name is again on all the short lists for the 2016 vice-presidential nomination. After the Season of Trump, Republicans desperately need to do something to make themselves seem less like the reincarnation of the Know-Nothings. They also need to do something, even if it’s primarily symbolic, to prevent probable Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton from making 2016 a pro-Democratic Year of the Woman. The latter impulse had a lot to do with Carly Fiorina’s brief emergence as a viable presidential candidate last year, and she remains an option for the veephood. But Haley’s résumé is a lot better; she would not have to spend precious time explaining why she lost her one political contest or why she got fired from her main private-sector gig. 

Fiorina’s main advantages over Haley are her skill as a debater and her reputation for intelligence, if not necessarily the best business sense. The South Carolina governor is rarely described as brilliant, and in fact seems a bit closer to her former benefactor Sarah Palin in the smarts department. And so the SOTU response is a heaven-sent opportunity for her to burnish her image as an articulate spokesperson for the GOP brand and the holy cause of movement conservatism. 

But it’s obviously a perilous assignment. In 2009, Bobby Jindal had the opposite problem of Haley, needing to come across as a regular guy instead of a Super-Wonk. He overcompensated and came across like a sort of right-wing Mister Rogers talking down to a room of backward children. There’s no particular reason to assume Haley can hit the sweet spot that has eluded so many others, including the current Establishment favorite for the top spot on the 2016 ticket, Marco Rubio. 

Let’s say Haley does well and is being hailed on Wednesday as the top veep prospect (at least on a ticket other than Donald Trump’s; Haley’s popularity with Establishment Republicans was undoubtedly burnished by her occasional clashes with the Donald over immigration and national-security policies). There will remain questions about her fidelity to her proclaimed Christian ethics in the sexual and financial realms. It’s not clear that a Republican Party that wants to make Bill Clinton’s sex life a voting issue against his long-suffering wife will be very happy with a ticket mate who has been the subject of constant rumors and even specific claims of licentious behavior (which seem to be taken seriously by South Carolina insiders, if not by the voting public), groundless as they may actually be. And being non-indictable under South Carolina laws for financial irregularities falls well short of a complete clean bill of health. 

Given memories of the price of inadequate scrutiny of her close friend St. Joan of the Tundra back in 2008, Haley may well inspire a truly savage and invasive vetting. She and her fans may rightly complain of the kind of double standards that give more conventional male politicians the benefit of many doubts. But when you are called upon to inoculate your party against sexism, racism, and nativism, you’d better be a picture of political health.