President Obama’s State of the Union address last night held little interest for me, as I’m long past the point of wanting to hear the giver of such political advice as “punish your enemies” and “bring a gun to a knife fight” lecture us about partisanship and civility. Of course, if I thought the economy and foreign affairs were the kind of bright spots he portrayed them to be, maybe I’d believe the kumbaya stuff, too.
I was far more interested in hearing the GOP response once I learned it would be delivered by Nikki Haley. The second-term governor of South Carolina is a natural subject of vice-presidential speculation, not least after her deft handling of the aftermath from the terrible Charleston shootings last summer. So her remarks last night were a chance to demonstrate how her style and approach would translate to national politics, and she didn’t disappoint.
For starters, Haley referred obliquely to the Charleston shootings — and the racial tensions exposed they anew — right from the start: “Much like America as a whole, ours is a state with a rich and complicated history, one that proves the idea that each day can be better than the last.” She went on to talk about them, and what followed them, in more detail:
“Our state was struck with shock, pain, and fear. But our people would not allow hate to win. We didn’t have violence, we had vigils. We didn’t have riots, we had hugs.
“We didn’t turn against each other’s race or religion. We turned toward God, and to the values that have long made our country the freest and greatest in the world.
“We removed a symbol that was being used to divide us, and we found a strength that united us against a domestic terrorist and the hate that filled him.”
And, of particular note, given the dynamics in the GOP presidential primary, she made this point:
“There’s an important lesson in this. In many parts of society today, whether in popular culture, academia, the media, or politics, there’s a tendency to falsely equate noise with results.
“Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.”
If there’s been a more elegant rebuttal of Trumpism during this election, I’d like to see it. But Haley didn’t stop there, instead speaking at length about her own experience as a child of immigrants in the South and the need to balance openness with prudence:
“My story is really not much different from millions of other Americans. Immigrants have been coming to our shores for generations to live the dream that is America. They wanted better for their children than for themselves. That remains the dream of all of us, and in this country we have seen time and again that that dream is achievable.
“Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory. During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.
“No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.
“At the same time, that does not mean we just flat out open our borders. We can’t do that. We cannot continue to allow immigrants to come here illegally. And in this age of terrorism, we must not let in refugees whose intentions cannot be determined.
“We must fix our broken immigration system. That means stopping illegal immigration. And it means welcoming properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion. Just like we have for centuries.”
Despite what you’ve heard during months of Trump-mania, this is the prevailing conservative attitude toward immigration. And Haley would make for a very effective spokesperson for that attitude in this year’s general election. That’s all the more true because of the way Haley sprinkled optimistic, rather than pessimistic, notes throughout her remarks:
- “the idea that each day can be better than the last”
- “a vision of a brighter American future”
- “America will have the chance to turn in a new direction”
- “The foundation that has made America that last, best hope on earth hasn’t gone anywhere. It still exists. It is up to us to return to it.”
- “(W)e’ve been tested in the past, and our people have always risen to the challenge. We have all the guidance we need to be safe and successful.”
The SOTU response is one of the most thankless tasks in politics, in largest part because it’s virtually impossible to look good in comparison to a president speaking in front of the assembled Congress and receiving intermittent bursts of applause. Haley performed the task as ably as anyone in recent memory; come what may electorally in 2016, she’s earning a prominent spot in national GOP politics beyond this year.