Nikki Haley makes her case for VP (unless You Know Who is president)

S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley delivered a strong State of the Union response Tuesday night.
S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley delivered a strong State of the Union response Tuesday night. CNN.com

State of the Union responses are political trap speeches. Yes, they’re terrific exposure for little-known politicos. But they’re hard. You’re following unique political theater – the president speaking to Congress – by speaking to a lone camera in a sterile location. Often, it doesn’t go well.

But on Tuesday night, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley followed President Obama’s State of the Union address with a warm, thoughtful and politically self-aware response.

Haley did what she was supposed to do without doing what she shouldn’t. She spoke of the president’s shortcomings without demonizing him. She spoke of her party’s philosophical strengths but acknowledged how Republicans contribute to a toxic political atmosphere.

People loved it.

Although not everyone was a fan.

Haley already had earned some national love for her strong and genuine response last June to the Charleston church shootings. On Tuesday, pundits gushed some more, cementing her spot at or near the top of the list of potential vice presidential candidates.

That is, unless the Republican nominee is Donald Trump.

Haley, who bluntly called Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims “an embarrassment to the Republican Party” last month, offered a more nuanced but just-as-potent swipe at him last night.

She spoke of her own family of Indian immigrants, her parents and their love of their new country. She said that no one like them – people who work hard and obey laws – should be made to feel unwelcome.

“Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory,” she said. “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.”

(About those immigrants, though: Haley wasn’t so welcoming last month with refugees – even the hardworking, law-abiding ones – joining mostly Republican governors in asking the feds not to send Syrian refugees to South Carolina. She polished that just a bit Monday night, saying that the U.S. shouldn’t let in refugees “whose intentions cannot be determined.”)

In case listeners didn’t get that she was poking at Trump, Haley offered another shortly after.

“In many parts of society today, whether in popular culture, academia, the media or politics, there’s a tendency to falsely equate noise with results,” Haley said. “Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.”

Interesting to note: Republican party leaders vet all State of the Union responses. No one atop the GOP was surprised by Haley’s speech, and no one in party leadership denounced it later. It not only was a message to America of what the party might like to be. It was a message to the party’s frontrunner and his supporters.

Message received – sort of.

Peter St. Onge