Politics & Policy

Amid Growing VP Buzz, Nikki Haley Charms Crowd in D.C. Speech

Haley at the National Press Cub, September 2, 2015. (Alex Wong/Getty)

In a full ballroom at Washington, D.C.’s National Press Club on Wednesday, Nikki Haley confirmed her openness to a vice-presidential run next year.

“If Trump is the Republican nominee,” came the question from the audience — the speaker’s voice muffled by the crowd’s laughter — “and he asks you to be his vice presidential running mate, would you agree to the job?”

“This is so wrong, whoever asked that,” the governor responded, prompting more laughter. “Look, we’ve got 16 candidates, [and] we’ve got a long way to go. . . . I’m going to let all of this play out.”

“If a presidential nominee wants to sit down and talk,” Haley said, “then I will sit down and talk.”

The applause that followed echoed the upbeat tenor of the South Carolina governor’s half-hour speech, in which she touted the economic and social advancements of “the New South.” South Carolina’s progress on jobs, education, and race relations, she said, represents a model that the “Old North” — which she said “make[s] the mistake” of “look[ing] away” from the New South — would do well to follow.

Haley’s speech was much anticipated in light of the speculative buzz surrounding her potential as a running mate for the eventual GOP nominee. It is one of many national appearances she has made this summer, including stops at the Republican National Committee’s summer meeting and Atlanta’s RedState gathering.

“It’s really hard to forecast vice-presidential candidates this far in advance,” says a top Republican strategist. “But having said that, it’s hard to point to any Republican official in the country who can speak credibly about racial issues in the way that Haley can. . . . She comes from a life experience that is not typical of Republican candidates. In a party that struggles with minority voters, having a vice presidential candidate who speaks credibly about racial advancement is a pretty valuable thing.”

#share#In her portrait of the New South, Haley cited in particular South Carolina’s actions in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting as indicative of the region’s more meaningful understanding of the phrase “black lives matter.” The “senseless” riots in Baltimore and Ferguson, she said, gave way to violence and devastation that disproportionately hurt black Americans and their businesses. In contrast, the Charleston response — which included “first and foremost, lifting up the victims and their families” and removing the Confederate flag from Capitol grounds — showcased what happens when “we stop shouting and start listening.”

“In my state, we didn’t have riots,” she said. “We had vigils.”

Haley, an Indian American, drew upon her background as the child of Sikh immigrants to chart her home state’s progress toward better race relations. She recalled witnessing discrimination against her father — “who still today wears a turban,” she said — when she was a child, and then watching racial tensions in the state dissolve as she grew up.

‘If a presidential nominee wants to sit down and talk,’ Haley said, then I will sit down and talk.

“I would not have been elected governor of South Carolina if our state were a racially intolerant place,” she said. When Haley first ran for governor in 2009, as a 37-year-old minority female, she competed for the Republican slot against an attorney general, a lieutenant governor, and a representative. “And I would not have won the nomination of the Republican Party if we were a racially intolerant party.”

Haley said that as governor she has drawn on GOP principles to spur job creation, bolster education, and curb poverty, incentivizing businesses to expand into rural communities and pumping high-tech resources into public schools in low-income districts. She said that the implementation of such conservative principles is what ultimately benefits impoverished minority communities.

But many are willing to ignore this reality, she said, because “[the GOP’s] approach feels cold and unwelcoming. That’s shameful, and that has to change.”

Haley appeared to have ideas on how to effect such a change, referencing a need for a new approach to the issue of illegal immigration, one focused less on distracting and harmful rhetoric and more on constructive action. She said the current field of Republican candidates has “let illegal immigration get away from them,” allowing a conversation that should be about hammering out details on a plan to secure the border to veer “all the way into birthright citizenship.” It’s time for candidates to talk “specifics,” she said. “That’s what I want to hear.”

#related#Haley’s “stop shouting, start listening, and commit to action” mantra is a large part of her appeal to the many Republicans who see her as a potential vice-presidential nominee in 2016. The audience at the NPC reflected as much. After toeing a diplomatic line in response to the question about becoming Trump’s running mate, Haley was met with a final, thinly veiled inquiry into her future political plans.

“Will you serve out your full term [as governor]?” the question read.

“What I will tell you is . . . I want to keep my promise to the people of South Carolina to make each day better than the day before it. . . . If a nominee asks me to sit down with them,” she said, “we will go from there.”

— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.

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