Politics / December 29, 2023

The 24-Hour Rise and Fall of Nikki Haley

The national media’s search for a big new political “narrative” creates flash stories that ignore the larger context.

Joan Walsh
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks during a town hall, December 8, 2023, in Sioux City, Iowa.(Charlie Neibergall / AP Photo)

Lucky Nikki Haley! Emerging as the strongest second-tier Republican presidential candidate (though still behind Donald Trump nationally and in the early primary states), the former South Carolina governor starred in Wednesday’s Politico Playbook, a newsletter that everyone in national politics seems to read.. Its top item hailed “Haley’s Comet” and featured no fewer than three major national features charting her rise, including in The New York Times. Her new strength is most notable in New Hampshire, where she has surged into second place with 29 percent of the primary vote (but still behind Trump at 45). She has “pep in her step” since getting popular New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu’s endorsement, the Playbook noted.

Poor Nikki Haley! Just 24 hours later, she starred in Thursday’s Playbook again, only this time the headline was “Nikki Haley’s moment of crisis.” As my colleague Chris Lehmann reported, she thoroughly botched an answer to a softball question from a New Hampshire voter on Wednesday about what caused the Civil War. “I mean, I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do,” she began. “Run the freedoms”? No mention of whose freedoms.

More word salad ensued. The New Hampshire voter said it was “astonishing” that she never mentioned slavery.

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“What do you want me to say about slavery?” Haley shot back. Then she took an unrelated question.

Haley’s answer surprised our leading national media. But why? As the ex-governor of the slave state that was the first to secede from the union, Haley has always straddled this issue, weirdly, but mostly coming down on the side of the former Confederacy and its modern-day proponents. Though she’s of Indian descent and “of color” as our current categories go, she has often sounded like a nostalgic Southern booster of the supposedly noble “Lost Cause.” Running for governor in 2010, she told the Sons of Confederate Veterans that she would always promote the notion that the Confederate flag was “about the heritage and…this is not something that is racist.” That same year, she also wrote slavery out of the story, describing the Civil War “as two sides fighting for different values, one for ‘tradition,’ and one for ‘change.’” Ah, tradition.

Haley might not have hurt herself with Trump’s base; maybe she helped herself. But her slavery gaffe probably did hurt her the media and anti-Trump Republicans just as she was gaining the mantle of the strongest number-two behind Trump. She tarnished her image as a smart, comparatively moderate, likable woman of color who might appeal to other women and independent voters. In 2015 she got points when, after resisting the move for years, she ordered the Confederate flag removed from atop the capitol, after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine Black churchgoers who’d welcomed him to their Wednesday prayer meeting.

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But if any of those potential Republican primary voters were watching, they have to ask: That lady gave that answer about slavery?

Political coverage, sadly, is too often driven by “the narrative:” the story about a candidate or campaign that takes off from a reliable fact, connects it to not so reliable facts, and somehow becomes an irrefutable nostrum. Joe Biden is too old, voters say. Trump supporters don’t care about the 91 felony counts against him. The economy is improving dramatically, but (obscure) $16 McDonalds meals mean people won’t give Biden any credit for rising wages, overall falling prices, and the lowest unemployment rate in decades.

Some narratives carry for months, turning into momentum for the storied candidates. And some don’t last 24 hours.

On a day-to-day basis, and arguably beyond, Politico Playbook sets the prevailing politics narrative. Often Playbook’s reporting is good, its “narrative” sometimes convincing and durable. The 24-hour “Haley’s Comet” storyline: Not so much.

Haley’s one-day undoing spotlights the problem with the media’s desperate effort to anoint an anti-Trump Republican. Early on, it was supposed to be Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, but the misanthropic trigger-happy culture warrior has sunk in primary polls as actual voters get to know him. Now, they’re promoting Haley. She’s been a sharp debater, probably winning each of those dull slugfests (which Trump won’t dignify by attending), but little else makes her stand out as a potential president, let alone a Trump-slayer. In fact, her slavery flub undercuts her reputation for being fast on her feet.

Beyond that, she’s a foreign policy hawk in a party whose base has largely turned against US military intervention. On domestic issues, Haley is a jumble of terrible policy ideas, including Social Security and Medicare cuts, as well as politically expedient, sometimes hopelessly irreconcilable, focus-grouped answers on issues from abortion—she wants “consensus,” but would sign a six-week ban if it crossed her desk—to, in this hopeless case, what caused the Civil War. Most times she’s been asked, she’s gotten that particular question wrong. National reporters should know that.

By the way, it took Haley until 9 am on Thursday to correct her answer. “Of course the Civil War was about slavery, that’s the easy part,” Haley told the radio show The Pulse of New Hampshire. (Correction: Slavery was not “the easy part,” Nikki.) “But more than that, what’s the lesson in all this? That freedom matters. And individual rights and liberties matter for all people. That’s the blessing of America. That was a stain on America when we had slavery. But what we want is never relive it. Never let anyone take those freedoms away again.”

Still a lot of pabulum, but it probably would have been an acceptable answer on Wednesday. On Thursday, it just heightened her embarrassment. And that continued into the night and over to Friday.

“I’m a seventh generation Mississippian named for [Confederate General] Jeb Stuart,” former Mitt Romney adviser Stuart Stevens tweeted Thursday night. “Nikki Haley is repeating the essence of the ‘Lost Cause’ myth. To say this in 2023 is extraordinary. It’s disqualifying.”

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie was kinder, trashing Haley with affectionate condescension. “She didn’t say what she said about this because she’s dumb. She’s not, she’s smart, and she knows better. And she didn’t say it because she’s a racist. Because she’s not. I know her well, and I don’t believe Nikki has a racist bone in her body.… She did it because she’s unwilling to offend anyone by telling the truth,” Christie said. One thing is clear: Haley’s slavery stumble has put pep in Christie’s step, and he’s far less likely to drop out of the race before the New Hampshire primary than he was even two days ago.

On Friday, she was cleaning up her mess again on New Hampshire radio, solemnly telling the host, “If you were born in the South, you’ve lived with the idea of slavery all your life,” which is a weird flex; merely the idea? Not the horror, the cruelty, the aftermath of institutional racism, Jim Crow? And then she went on to “Lost Cause” it again, insisting it was about “more than [slavery], it was about the role of government and individual rights.”

The 24-hour flash of “Haley’s Comet” shows how desperate our national media are for a big new political “narrative” and how badly they botch informed reporting when they try to create one. This holiday week, Haley’s slavery stumbles were the big story, on cable and online. Nevertheless, we’re likely to see more flashes of Haley in the weeks to come. In fact, Politico reported Thursday night that New Hampshire voters “seem poised to give Nikki Haley a pass” on her slavery idiocy.

It makes a certain kind of sense. For anti-Trump Republicans and the media, Haley’s all they’ve got as they work to ignore reality: that Donald Trump will be the 2024 Republican nominee and our democracy is in grave danger.

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh, a national affairs correspondent for The Nation, is a coproducer of The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show and the author of What’s the Matter With White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America. Her new book (with Nick Hanauer and Donald Cohen) is Corporate Bullsh*t: Exposing the Lies and Half-Truths That Protect Profit, Power and Wealth In America.

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