When Nikki Haley was elected governor of South Carolina in November 2010, every Republican I knew told me that she would be on every GOP presidential candidate's VP short list in 2012 and could even be a potential frontrunner in her own right for the 2016 presidential nomination.
It didn't work out that way. Haley struggled through her first term -- beset by poor relationships with her own party in the state legislature, a major hacking scandal involving the state's revenue agency and a sputtering economy. Democrats even talked about her as vulnerable heading into her 2014 reelection race.
All of those dire predictions of unfulfilled political potential seemed a million miles away Monday when Haley announced that she was calling on the state legislature to remove the Confederate flag from the state Capitol grounds in the wake of the murders of nine people at a church in Charleston last week.
Haley was poised and forceful -- acknowledging that there are good-intentioned people who value the Confederate flag while making clear that it was time for the flag to come down. "It is time to remove that flag from the Capitol grounds," she said to prolonged applause. "That flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state."
Haley's emphasis on the future of the state rather than its past was woven throughout the speech. She quoted her own 2010 inaugural address by noting that "South Carolina is the state that's changed the most for the best" and repeatedly emphasizing that what was need not always be.
Haley, smartly, cast herself as an example of just how much the state has changed -- describing herself as a "minority female governor elected and reelected" by voters of the state, a message affirmed by the cross-racial and cross-party group of politicians lined up behind her in support of her position. That forward-looking message delivered by that messenger -- an Indian American woman with a Southern accent -- is incredibly powerful for a party that badly needs non-white male voices in leadership roles.
Before I get too effusive ... no, Haley, is not exactly leading the charge on the need to remove the Confederate flag. She's more inserting herself at the front of a charge that has been under way for several days within Republican circles. True political bravery would have been calling for the flag to be removed during her 2010 or 2014 campaigns, which she pointedly did not do. But politics is not always about being first. Oftentimes it's simply about not being last or, at least, not being perceived as late. By that measure, Haley succeeded.
It's easy to jump from Haley's performance today (and, more broadly, how well she has handled things since the shootings) to her potential on the national stage in 2016. After all, it's no secret -- as I mentioned above -- that the GOP needs faces and voices like Haley's. But Haley's own experience with the vagaries of political stardom provide the right amount of caution when it comes to predicting what she will do or where she will be in 2016 or when she is term limited out of the governor's office in 2018.
What Haley has proven over the past five days is this: All of the talk about her natural political abilities wasn't wrong. For now, for her, that's enough.