South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley sought to respond to Americans’ frustrations with Washington in her response to President Obama’s final State of the Union address, while seeking to mitigate the damage done to the Republican brand by the candidacy of Donald Trump.
Selected by Speaker Paul Ryan last month, Haley represents a new face for the GOP—the first woman and the first minority governor of her state—who saw her star rise in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting last year and overseeing the removal of the Confederate Battle Flag from the South Carolina state capital.
The pick reflects Ryan’s desire to offer a positive counterbalance to the divisive Republican primary, while reflecting the frustration with the nation’s capital with the choice of someone from outside of Washington.
“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” Haley, 43, said, alluding to the bombastic Republican front-runner. “We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”
Listing many of the same themes that Trump is feeding off, Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, argued that the GOP could take a more constructive course.
“The President’s record has often fallen far short of his soaring words,” she said. “As he enters his final year in office, many Americans are still feeling the squeeze of an economy too weak to raise income levels. We’re feeling a crushing national debt, a health care plan that has made insurance less affordable and doctors less available, and chaotic unrest in many of our cities. Even worse, we are facing the most dangerous terrorist threat our nation has seen since September 11th, and this president appears either unwilling or unable to deal with it. Soon, the Obama presidency will end, and America will have the chance to turn in a new direction.”
Haley laid blame on both parties, pledging that the GOP, with Ryan now at the helm and with the prospect of a new president, would seek to restore trust.
“We as Republicans need to own that truth,” she said. We need to recognize our contributions to the erosion of the public trust in America’s leadership. We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken. And then we need to fix it.”
“There’s an important lesson in this. 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,” she added.
Haley retold the story of the Charleston shooting, in which nine black churchgoers were killed by a white man at Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“Our people would not allow hate to win. We didn’t have violence, we had vigils. We didn’t have riots, we had hugs,” she said. “We removed a symbol that was being used to divide us, and we found a strength that united us against a domestic terrorist and the hate that filled him.”
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Summarizing the Republican agenda of lower taxes, reforming education, and repealing Obamacare, Haley said the country has “big decisions to make” in the coming election. Seeking to put a softer tone on GOP opposition to same-sex marriage, Haley called for respect on all sides of the issue.
“We would respect differences in modern families,” she said, “but we would also insist on respect for religious liberty as a cornerstone of our democracy.”