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Budowsky: Nikki Haley’s date with destiny

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South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), who according to one recent poll enjoys a towering 81 percent approval rating among South Carolina Republicans and an 84 percent approval rating among South Carolina Tea Party supporters, has a rendezvous with destiny when GOP presidential candidates come to her state for the presidential primary on Feb. 20.

Today the political community is focused on the expected endorsement of Donald Trump by Sarah Palin, the former mayor of Wasilla, Republican governor of Alaska who served less than one term, disastrous GOP vice presidential nominee in 2008 and host of a reality television show that was not renewed.

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Forget Palin after a few news cycles — the woman to watch in Republican politics is Haley. She has earned the right to be on the short list of potential GOP vice presidential candidates in 2016, has the potential to have powerful influence on the Republican race in the South Carolina primary and would receive significant support for president down the line if a Democrat is inaugurated as president in January 2017.

Make no mistake, as a Democrat I disagree with her on the great majority of issues. But as someone who spent years working for Democratic leaders in Congress and has both opposed and at times collaborated with senior Republicans as circumstances warranted, I think I’m a fairly decent judge of political talent and believe it is healthy to offer respect to worthy adversaries, a habit that is in short supply these days.

Nikki Haley is special.

It matters that, after serving one full term as governor, Haley was reelected by voters of South Carolina to a second term and continues to enjoy high popularity today.

It matters, and is important and revealing, that after the horrific shootings in Charleston last year Haley brought South Carolinians together, healed the divisions that could have been worsened by one of the most heinous mass murders in modern history and stood at the front of the line of those who brought the Confederate flag down from the state capital.

As a correspondent from CNN stated at the time, Haley stared down hate and history. She brought together men and women of different faiths and races and turned a moment of tragedy and anger into an occasion for healing and unity. If the true test of character for leaders is how they respond to moments of sudden and unplanned crises, Haley passed her test with flying colors and made good people proud throughout the South and the nation.

More recently her speech to the nation in response to President Obama’s State of the Union address was one of the most thoughtful, provocative and important of such addresses in modern times.

With the front-running candidate for the nomination of her party taking the GOP into dark and dangerous directions that even some conservatives have compared to the politics of Germany in the 1930s, Haley in her speech championed a Republicanism and conservatism that is civil, respectful and thoughtful.

When the daughter of immigrants from India spoke of an America that should both enforce immigration laws and make those who dream of coming here feel welcome, she offered the antithesis of the race-baiting bigotry of Trump.

When the highly popular governor said that both parties in Washington share responsibility for the failures that make politics in Washington so distasteful to so many Americans today, she was speaking an obvious truth that is told too rarely.

With a divided GOP being dominated in the presidential campaign by voices of insults and hate, with the Republican establishment in a state of confusion and retreat, with the center-right field of candidates divided four different ways, the calm conservative voice of Nikki Haley could be decisive in South Carolina and primaries that follow.

The true heir to the conservatism of Ronald Reagan does not reside in men named Donald Trump and Ted Cruz but in a woman named Haley.

Budowsky was an aide to former Sens. Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Alexander, then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics. He can be read on The Hill’s Contributors blog and reached at brentbbi@webtv.net