Delivering the response to the State of the Union address is a fraught and thankless task. After the most powerful person on earth spends an hour or so being showered in praise and applause before both chambers of Congress, serving as tribute for the opposition offers more opportunities for blunders than triumphs. The chosen responder is usually alone, seated in a coldly lit room, delivering a message directly into a camera – like a hostage. There is a reason most of the GOP State of the Union responses in the Obama era are memorable more for their missteps. The speech delivered last night by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley serves as a remarkable exception to this rule.
While it acknowledged the legitimacy of the anger toward her party displayed by its core voters, her address was a captivating defense of Republicanism and Americanism. It was simultaneously a compelling articulation of the Republican Party’s governing agenda in the post-Obama era, and an appeal to the coalition of voters who can deliver a mandate to make that agenda a reality. It was a strong speech. Unsurprisingly, many voices within the media landscape, those who perhaps consider themselves arbiters of what it means to be conservative, hated it.
Though the speech Governor Haley delivered last night was strong, the speaker wasn’t. At least, not at first. She began the address appearing stiff, nervous, and unaccustomed to the spotlight into which she was thrust. That initial awkwardness did not last.
For those concerned with how a dominant Republican Party would govern in 2017, Haley outlined in broad strokes the GOP agenda. She reiterated the need for reducing American debt, reforming the tax code in order to offset the effects of stagnant incomes for middle-class Americans, and repeated the need to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Haley affirmed the Republican Party’s support for a stronger military and America’s alliance with Israel. She dismissed as folly the Obama administration’s destabilizing project of seeking to bring the Islamic Republic of Iran in from the cold. Haley added that a Republican president would respect the Second and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution, neither of which have been a priority for the present administration. In a deft appeal to the voters who decide elections, independent women, Haley backed a choice-based education reform program.
Haley’s speech was not, however, an atonal celebration of all things Republican. For conservatives who are frustrated with the elected members of the nation’s center-right party, Haley’s speech did not paper over their frustrations or paint a rosy and self-deluded picture of GOP governance. “You’ve paid attention to what has been happening in Washington, and you’re not naïve,” she noted. In a nod to the wing of the party for whom immigration has become the issue on which their vote hinges, Haley acknowledged the authenticity and righteousness of those concerns. She denounced those who would “open our borders,” affirmed the need to enforce existing immigration laws, and contended that even vetted refugees must be viewed with suspicion given the threat posed by radical Islam.
But here is the rub: The Palmetto State governor also expressed unapologetic support for religious pluralism, for legal immigration from peoples of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds, and for unity across racial lines. In the speech’s most commanding moment, she addressed her state’s reaction to a terroristic massacre of African-American churchgoers by a virulent racist gunman last summer. “We didn’t turn against each other’s race or religion,” Haley asserted. “We turned toward God, and to the values that have long made our country the freest and greatest in the world.”
In this, Haley articulated what it means to be American; a people bound not by shared ethnicity or heritage, but by a common set of ideals – ideals to which all the free peoples of the world aspire to share. It was also a quiet and powerful denunciation of fractiousness and ethnocentrism. And those to whom this admonition was directed heard it loud and clear.
The responses of those in the cast of conservative media professionals who lashed out Haley for delivering a cogent defense of Republican values are not individually important. You can check them out for yourself if you like. Suffice it to say that their response made Haley’s point. What they heard when an Indian-American governor, the child of immigrants with a distinctly dark complexion, defended America’s centuries-old culture of welcomed immigration and assimilation was an attack on Donald Trump, the man. It illustrated the extent to which his is a personality cult. What Haley denounced was Trumpism – a paranoid, nationalist fever. It is, by definition, a minority sentiment. It cannot ascend to lead the nation because it seeks to shape a winning coalition through division and subtraction. For conservatives with an interest in seeing their governing agenda enacted, the rise of Trump is a threat. There is no sense in pretending it is not simply out of a fear of offending those with access to booming microphones.
What Haley did last night was brave. Her defense of Republican values – ranging from an articulation of a conservative governing agenda to her assertion that it is a program that should and will appeal to every American of all backgrounds – is not a popular sentiment for a vocal minority of Republican influencers. The governor deserves admiration for volunteering to endure the slights that she is suffering today. Nikki Haley presented a strong contrast to the empty, vainglorious, patently unrealizable narrative woven by President Barack Obama in his final State of the Union address. It was a contrast that you could tell would resonate with voters and, should her argument win out among Republicans, could very well yield to the GOP electoral victories and a governing mandate. For those who are more comfortable barking from the sidelines, that’s a scary prospect.