Sad! The Comical Rake-Stomp Opera of Nikki Haley

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 12: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Former UN Ambassador ( R) Nikki Haley visits "Fox & Friends" at Fox News Channel Studios on November 12, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)
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I wanted to take a moment to marvel over the Nikki Haley situation with you. The conventional take is that as she’s risen in the GOP presidential primary contest she’s getting the heightened scrutiny that goes along with it. But that’s not actually true. As with so much else in the news, that take is driven by vibes and the need for a storyline rather than any actual data. FiveThirtyEight says that on October 1st she was at 6.9% support in nationwide polls. Today she is at 11%. That’s a 4 percentage point shift when Donald Trump, today, remains literally 50 percentage points ahead. The only place where there’s even been a modest shift is in New Hampshire. And it’s quite modest. There she’s moved to about 25% support after almost two months at 20%.

So … Go Nikki! Laying the groundwork for a 2 to 1 trouncing in New Hampshire to build momentum for a … well, not really clear that it’s for anything. But let’s not be spoil sports!

In other words the entire thing is a mirage, but the joke is on Haley, because she is still getting some of the scrutiny she would normally get if she was rising in the polls as the political class has collectively decided to pretend she is doing. You’ve certainly seen her latest controversy. She was asked in New Hampshire what caused the Civil War and she managed to answer without mentioning slavery. She essentially said it was about big government.

This was a bit too much even for the 2023 Republican Party, though it’s also precisely the kind of goof that is in the DNA of the modern GOP, perhaps especially for a former Republican governor of South Carolina who, as the non-white child of immigrants, is especially anxious to nail down her “conservative” bona-fides. What’s amazing is that she’s still struggling to get free of the self-made controversy three days later. She first said well, actually it was about slavery. But in her third, fourth, fifth-and-counting responses she’s found herself still trying to redeem her original claim that it was about taking away people’s freedoms and a story about the dangers of “big government.” Sure, it was about slavery. That’s obvious. But what does it mean for today? “To me, it was about freedom. It’s bigger than slavery,” she said yesterday with the state’s governor, Chris Sununu, standing by with evident discomfort.

I could write a whole post about why what Haley is grasping haplessly for here is a sanitized version of Lost Cause ideology. From the last decades of the 19th century, Southern apologists no longer defended slavery as such on its merits. It was just that it happened to be a dispute related to slavery — a much misunderstood institution, in their telling — that led liberty-minded southerners to finally decide to make a stand against oppressive government. Conservatives today are generally pretty willing to say that owning people as what amounts to human livestock is one of those cases where government needs to step in and say, “no, you can’t do that” and move on to other topics. Indeed, the irony is that Republicans have developed a pat and serviceable if mendacious and trolling answer to the question. The odious ferret Tom Cotton actually took to Twitter to repeat it, almost as if throwing Haley a lifeline.

As Cotton put it: “The Civil War started because the American people elected an anti-slavery Republican as president and Democrats revolted rather than accept minor restrictions on the expansion of slavery to the western territories.”

As I said, it’s the perfect response for the modern GOP. Accurate enough to end the conversation for most reporters; clearly anti-slavery (that’s a plus!); but also packaged into a dishonest and trolling attack on Democrats. It’s perfect for Republicans. And it’s just sitting right there!

All of this amounts to a lesson in what we probably already know: Haley is not at all ready for prime time, not in the abstract and not for today’s GOP. That’s not a measure of ethics or ideology or simple right and wrong, just the basic blocking and tackling of politics. Her political chops are as much a figment of press imagination as her purported surge in the polls.

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