Nikki Haley’s first mistake may prove fatal

Published December 28, 2023

The Telegraph

The Republican presidential candidate’s uncharacteristic misstep has turned the media tides against her

Nikki Haley committed a huge unforced error on Wednesday night when she failed to forthrightly say that slavery was the Civil War’s proximate cause. How she walks that back and tamps the controversy down over the next few days will play a large part in determining her campaign’s future – if it has one at all. 

Haley’s misstep arose during a New Hampshire town hall when an attendee asked her what caused the Civil War. Most Americans would give some version of the same answer: slavery. It’s simple historical fact that Northern and Southern politicians had sparred angrily for over a decade over the question of whether the new territories gained after the Mexican War would be open to slave owners. Southern documents declaring succession explicitly said this, and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens went so far as to say that slavery was the Confederacy’s cornerstone. Simply acknowledging these basic facts should be Politics 101 in 2023.

She instead launched on an apparent non-sequitur, saying the war was caused by government intervention and control over individual freedom. This could have been an artful way of handling the issue, if she had clearly identified that the government control that denied freedom was slavery. But she did not, which made her answer veer perilously close to the “War of Northern Aggression” argument that Southern apologists have long advanced.

The blowback has predictably been fierce. President Biden’s campaign posted a simple response on X: “It was about slavery”. The media, faced with an otherwise slow news week between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, are playing up her gaffe. Unfortunately for Team Haley, this is not going to simply fade away.

Her first attempt at a response this morning was patently inadequate. On a morning CNN show, she acknowledged the war was about slavery but immediately pivoted to her initial riff about freedom, saying “What does it mean to us today? What it means to us today is about freedom. That’s what that was all about.”

That’s unsatisfactory for a host of reasons. First, she doesn’t outright say that slavery was wrong, and that the North was right to try to stamp it out. One suspects that even most voters in her native South Carolina – the first state to leave the Union after Abraham Lincoln’s election – would agree with that today. Her voters, who tend to be moderates and independents, are especially likely to think this. That she and her team still don’t see this twelve hours after her initial mistake speaks volumes.

It’s inadequate for a larger reason, too: her answer doesn’t provide any guidance about what she thinks the lessons for us today are. The Democratic Party argues that the Civil War launched a century-march for freedom for black people that we are still engaged in today. They contend that the freedoms won then and in the Civil Right revolution of the 1960s were only necessary preconditions for a continued fight against racism, and the lasting effects of prior racism. Her platitudinous answer could have been given as easily by Barack Obama or Kamala Harris as by herself.

Neither Donald Trump nor Ron DeSantis have yet weighed in, and their decision whether and how to do so are also significant. It would be highly ironic for Trump to criticise Haley given his prior opposition to renaming US military bases named after Confederate generals and his opposition to removing monuments erected decades ago to commemorate Confederate heroes or soldiers. It would make national news, then, were he to directly state that the North was right to fight slavery’s expansion and accept war to defend the Union. “Even Donald Trump can state the obvious,” media types will note. “What does it say about Nikki Haley that she can’t?”

DeSantis’ floundering campaign should see this as a lifeline. Iowa was a staunchly Union state during the Civil War, losing over 13,000 men to battle and disease. He should immediately state that the party of Lincoln should nominate a clear, unambiguous supporter of Lincoln. Giving a speech on the meaning of Lincoln, the Civil War, and freedom for today’s Republican near the site of the Keokuk National Cemetery, which houses the remains of many Union soldiers, would be a masterstroke.

Haley should respond as Barack Obama did when provocative anti-American statements from his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, emerged in 2008. He first downplayed them, but the furor of the man who married the Obamas saying “God damn America” would not die down. Obama finally gave a speech in Philadelphia on race in which he deplored his former friend’s views and gave his own thoughts on race and America. 

Haley should immediately schedule a similar speech, ideally delivered either at a Civil War battlefield or an Historically Black College or University, that does what she should have done initially: deplore slavery, endorse Lincoln’s and the Union’s views, and expound on what the War’s legacy means for us today.

No one becomes President in the modern era without adroitly navigating around mistakes and unplanned events. The last few hours have been awful for Haley. She will largely determine whether the days that follow will lead to her demise or her recovery.

Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how America’s political order is being upended by populist challenges, from the left and the right. He also studies populism’s impact in other democracies in the developed world.

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