Governor Nikki Haley has most recently been in the news stumping for Mitt Romney, but her book, Can’t Is Not an Option: My American Story, released last week, looks back at the ascent she has made on the national stage, and describes some of her struggles and successes along the way.
In an interview with National Review Online, she explains her enthusiasm for Romney, who was one of her early endorsers in her 2010 gubernatorial campaign. She emphasizes his proven ability to turn around failing businesses and public projects such as the Salt Lake City Olympics, arguing that he epitomizes “our country’s great ability to self-correct. I think that’s what we’ll see him do in Washington.” As an accountant and a businesswoman, Haley also appreciates Romney’s financial acumen, arguing that he’s capable of the kind of “common-sense” budgeting that Washington needs.
As an articulate and exciting female governor, Haley has naturally been the subject of vice-presidential rumors. She has repeatedly said she would reject any such offer, but a nationally prominent role at some point seems likely. She tells me, “I never thought I’d run for governor. I don’t plan ahead; I like big surprises when doors get opened up for you. That way, you’re never disappointed.”
Notably, Haley maintains a close relationship with former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who provided crucial support for her gubernatorial run. It’s a natural connection: Both have experience as young female governors who have demonstrated their ability to take on their states’ Republican establishment. For her part, Haley is confronting the South Carolina legislature, a quintessential legislative “old boys’ club.” Her proudest and most dramatic accomplishment, which she began pushing in her earliest days as a state legislator, was requiring legislative votes to be on the record. Previously, the legislature passed up to 98 percent of its bills by voice vote, engendering corruption and displaying an almost laughable disrespect for accountability.
Throughout the book, Haley repeatedly notes that the flaws in South Carolina’s politics, and American politics in general, often are due not to a lack of Republican leadership, but to a lack of “conservative leadership.” She argues that, at times, dealing with an “old-guard Republican leadership” is no easier than other GOP governors’ having to deal with Democratic legislatures; neither is happy to “understand that if there is money left over at the end of the year, you don’t just live by a spending cap. You have to give that money back to the people.”
Despite some of her successes, South Carolina’s conservative establishment and tea-party activists have grown increasingly dissatisfied with her reform efforts. Her approval rating has dropped dramatically, as John Fund recounted in an NR piece last fall. In particular, one South Carolina conservative argued that “she misled a lot of reformers. I regret my efforts to help her get elected” because she hasn’t exercised fiscal discipline in her role as a member of the budget control board, a five-member board that also includes the state treasurer and comptroller, and that makes Columbia’s major financial-management decisions.
Asked her about this disillusionment, the governor says she hopes to reinvigorate people’s support for her by “pushing the most comprehensive reform of South Carolina government in 25 years. . . . We’re going to do away with the five-member budget control board, and embark on a fundamental restructuring of government.” For instance, in her book she describes her shock at being told that each state department has its own back office to provide services such as human resources, IT, etc.; she hopes to consolidate them into one Department of Administration, saving millions.
Besides the vicious conflict with a powerful political establishment, her story is probably most notable for two things: her rise as an Indian-American in what was once one of America’s most segregated states, and the difficulties of running for office as a mother and a wife. Haley describes the pain, early in her life, not just of being excluded for being a non-white minority, but also of her family’s being utterly different from everyone else in her hometown. Most notably, she was disqualified from a beauty contest that had separate competitions for blacks and whites. But this story is ultimately a positive one: She tells me that her family’s eventual acceptance and her continued success say “so much about the goodness of South Carolina and a lot about the greatness of America.”
Besides policy disputes, Haley’s experience as a female politician has been colored by various unsubstantiated accusations of adultery, which she attributes to the desperation of South Carolina’s establishment. She tells me the abuse was such that “so many people, after I won the race for governor, came up to me and said, ‘After seeing what you went through, I would never want to run for office.’ That’s the reason why I wrote the book.” She argues that, despite the fierce opposition she has faced as a legislator and as governor, “I hope the book opens people’s eyes to what it’s like when a mother, daughter, wife, or sister runs for office. It’s not easy, but when you put yourself out there, it’s worth it. Look at what changes you can make for your state and your country.” One hopes that Governor Haley succeeds in her efforts to reform South Carolina’s government, not least so that her career proves that point.
— Patrick Brennan is a 2011 William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.