The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nikki Haley: The ‘GOP’s Obama’

South Carolina Governor Haley, giving the Republican response to State of the Union, took a softer tone on immigration. (Video: Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

A politician with a diverse background who doesn’t exactly fit in among colleagues gives a high-profile speech that seems to open a road someday to the White House. President Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention — or South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley giving the Republican response to the president’s final State of the Union on Tuesday night?

Haley’s response, well-received in some quarters, brought a five-year-old New York magazine question to mind:”Could Nikki Haley be the GOP’s Obama?” Its answer: “Yes, she can.”

[Nikki Haley cemented her place in the national spotlight Tuesday]

“Haley has suddenly gone from being a three-term state legislator to a nationally prominent politician,” Jennifer Senior wrote back in 2010. “She speaks well and looks terrific on TV. She’s young and has two young, telegenic children, and she stands out in a party of dreary white men. Sound like anyone else you know?”

Nor have parallels in Obama and Haley’s personal lives been missed. Whatever Obama and Haley are, they’re not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

“Haley, like Obama, has an extraordinary ethnic heritage, which was both a liability and an asset during her campaign,” Senior wrote. “Born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa — her parents emigrated from Amritsar, India, in 1963 — Haley often heard her full name on the campaign trail, just as Barack Hussein Obama did, when someone wanted to make the not-so-subtle point that perhaps she was insufficiently American for the job.”

Indeed, attacks on Haley’s faith — she was raised a Sikh — were a fundamental part of her opponent’s strategy in her ultimately successful gubernatorial run in 2010. “We’ve already got a raghead in the White House; we don’t need another raghead in the governor’s mansion,” one state senator said at the time. And, like Obama, Haley was compelled to emphasize that she is Christian.

“I was born and raised with the Sikh faith, my husband and I were married in the Methodist Church, our children have been baptized in the Methodist Church, and currently we attend both,” she said in 2010.

Some in the GOP have even questioned whether Haley is too much like Obama — stressing compromise when her base wants a standoff. After the State of the Union, Ann Coulter, the conservative gadfly who thrives on extreme rhetoric, unleashed a punishing tweetstorm targeting the South Carolina governor during her moment in the spotlight.

“Nikki Haley: ‘No one who is willing to work hard should ever be turned away,'” Coulter wrote, blasting Haley’s relatively moderate — at least compared with Donald Trump — views on immigration. “That’s the definition of open borders.” And: “Haley: Let in unlimited immigrants ‘just like we have for centuries.’ Has she read a history book? Coolidge shut it down for 1/2 a century.” And: “Nikki Haley: ‘The best thing we can do is turn down the volume.’ Translation: Voters need to shut the hell up.”

Coulter’s takeaway: “Trump should deport Nikki Haley.” For some on the right, the governor was just a mouthpiece for the GOP establishment. She even dared blame Washington dysfunction on Republicans.

“We need to be honest with each other, and with ourselves: While Democrats in Washington bear much responsibility for the problems facing America today, they do not bear it alone,” Haley said. “There is more than enough blame to go around.”

This is not what some of the Republican Party faithful wanted to hear.

“65% of conservative voters say the United States should not let in any refugees from the entire Middle East — the point of view Republican leadership is presumably attacking with its State of the Union rebuttal,” Julia Hahn wrote at Breitbart, a conservative news website. “Yet Ryan’s strategy for the Republican Party’s State of the Union response seems consistent with GOP leadership’s longstanding practice of demeaning its own voter base.”

[Haley calls for ignoring the ‘angriest voices’ this election season]

Yet many appeared to embrace Haley’s tone. And some weren’t content to discuss Haley as a possible choice for vice president, despite her implied slam of Trump’s immigration policies. Given her skilled handling of last year’s mass shooting at a church in Charleston, S.C., and the Confederate flag imbroglio that followed, it appeared to some that Haley might have the right stuff for the top spot at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

“She’s in the odd position of being the ideal vice presidential candidate who should have run for president,” South Carolina journalist Isaac Bailey wrote in an opinion piece published early Wednesday. “If the tragedies during which her leadership abilities shined most had happened in 2014 and not 2015, maybe she would have.”