Nikki Haley’s Unforced Error
A poor answer to a softball question has created unnecessary controversy.
WaPo (“Haley acknowledges Civil War ‘about slavery’ after facing backlash“):
Nikki Haley on Thursday scrambled to quell a firestorm that rocked her ascendant presidential campaign, acknowledging the Civil War was “about slavery” after critics in both parties admonished her for omitting that fact during a recent town hall.
First during a radio interview then again later during a campaign stop, Haley, a former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor who has risen in polls of the Republican race, made remarks that departed from what she said a day earlier. When asked about the cause of the war at a Wednesday town hall, she made no mention of slavery, which scholars agree was central to the conflict. That initial exchange attracted widespread attention and criticism in both parties that continued Thursday.
“Of course, the Civil War was about slavery. We know that. That’s unquestioned. Always the case. We know the Civil War was about slavery,” Haley said at a town hall in North Conway. “But it was also more than that. It was about the freedoms of every individual. It was about the role of government. For 80 years, America had the decision and the moral question of whether slavery was a good thing. And whether government economically, culturally, any other reasons, had a role to play in that. By the grace of God, we did the right thing and slavery is no more.”
“I say that as a Southerner. I say that as a Southern governor who removed the Confederate flag off the State House grounds,” she added to applause.
The outcry over her comments and the attempt to clarify them marked a new test for Haley, who until this week had made few unforced errors and rarely veered off script as she pitched herself as the strongest general election candidate in the field. Her remarks came amid a year-end push in New Hampshire, a state that is seen as key to her chances in the GOP race and where she has shot up into a distant second against Donald Trump, the clear polling leader. They presented a fresh opportunity for rival campaigns and critics, who have accused Haley of trying to have it both ways on key issues.
At a presidential campaign event in Iowa on Thursday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a rival Republican, said Haley “had some problems with some basic American history,” calling her response to the Civil War question an “incomprehensible word salad.”
“I just think that this shows this is not a candidate that’s ready for prime time,” the governor said, adding that it’s “not that difficult to identify and acknowledge the role slavery played in the Civil War.”
The response she offered Wednesday evening did not include slavery.
“What was the cause of the United States Civil War?” a man asked Haley at a town hall in Berlin, N.H.
She replied, “Well, don’t come with an easy question.” Then she proceeded to answer.
“I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run, the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do,” Haley said.
“I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are,” Haley added. “And I will always stand by the fact that I think government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people. It was never meant to be all things to all people. Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life. They don’t need to tell you what you can and can’t do. They don’t need to be a part of your life.”
The questioner expressed surprise at Haley’s response, saying, “In the year 2023, it’s astonishing to me that you answer that question without mentioning the word ‘slavery.’”
“What do you want me to say about slavery?” Haley asked.
The man responded, “You’ve answered my question, thank you.”
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a Republican candidate who has cast himself as the unfiltered truth-teller in the race while castigating Trump as unfit for the White House, said Haley’s Wednesday answer was a reflection of her unwillingness to speak hard truths. He argued that Haley knows the history of her state and doesn’t “have a racist bone in her body.”
“So don’t get confused about what she’s been saying and what she and her new political husband [New Hampshire Gov.] Chris Sununu are trying to mop up all around New Hampshire,” Christie, who is competing for moderate and independent voters who have also gravitated toward Haley, said during a town hall Thursday night in Epping, N.H. “She did it because she’s unwilling to offend anyone by telling the truth.”
MAGA Inc., the super PAC backing Trump, echoed in an email blast that the comment showed Haley is “not ready for prime time” and said the “issue is her response, not the question.” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who is Black and has endorsed Trump, said slavery was the obvious answer and wrote on X, “This really doesn’t matter because Trump is going to be the nominee.” Trump’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Speaking with reporters Thursday afternoon, Haley dismissed her opponents’ assertions that she had flip-flopped on the cause of the Civil War. She said she didn’t mention slavery in her initial response because she thought it was “a given.”
“If it requires clarification of saying, ‘Yes, the Civil War was about slavery,’ I’m happy to do that,” she added.
To the limited extent Haley has a shot at the Republican nomination, I doubt this will hurt her all that much. And, if she’s somehow the nominee, I don’t think this will be a deciding factor eleven months from now. Still, it’s an unforced error.
As noted in the piece, Haley was governor of South Carolina and dealt with the controversy over the Confederate battle flag in the state. She’s surely aware of the history here. And, while I’m more sympathetic than most OTB readers to Southern sensitivities over the issue, Haley has had more than enough time to workshop an artful answer to questions like this.
Something like this:
“Slavery” is an inadequate explanation for something as complex as the political causes of the war, let alone the reasons individual soldiers fought in it. It’s perfectly reasonable for politicians, particularly those trying to appeal to Southerners, to acknowledge that. But it’s simply absurd not to acknowledge that the “peculiar institution” was the sine qua non. Absent the divide over the future of slavery, the war simply wouldn’t have happened.
I wouldn’t go so far as Haley’s political opponents as to argue that her bungling this episode establishes that she’s not up to the job of the presidency. Lots of future presidents have been caught flat-footed on the campaign trail and recovered. But this was one she should have been prepared to knock out of the park.