The official response to the State of the Union speech from the out party is always a difficult job. The presidency comes with a bully pulpit, and President Obama has ample opportunities to make his agenda clear. He spoke for nearly an hour last night. In contrast, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who gave the GOP response, spoke for only about nine minutes.
Haley is one of six current female governors, three of whom are Republicans.
Although giving the response speech is always difficult, Haley’s job last night was especially tricky, given that 2016 is an election year, and her own party is currently deeply divided in the midst of primary season.
Predictably, Haley’s speech drew both praise and criticism. Conservative pundits including Charles Krauthammer, Rich Lowry, David Drucker, and Matt Lewis praised her, while Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, and others criticized her.
Early in the speech, I was turned off by Haley’s discussion of who’s to blame for political division in DC:
“We need to be honest with each other, and with ourselves: while Democrats in Washington bear much responsibility for the problems facing America today, they do not bear it alone. There is more than enough blame to go around.
“We as Republicans need to own that truth. 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.
I simply felt that this part of the speech was unnecessary. Maybe it was an attempt to appeal to disengaged Americans or moderate voters who see both parties to blame. But in her precious little time to speak, Haley shined brighter later in the speech discussing a conservative agenda. Voters can decide for themselves who is to blame. Voters need to hear what conservative policies would look like.
Perhaps the most talked-about aspect of Haley’s speech was this line:
“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.
Haley has confirmed in TV interviews this morning that this line was directed at GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.
She also said in her speech:
“We must fix our broken immigration system. That means stopping illegal immigration. And it means welcoming properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion. Just like we have for centuries. (emphasis added)
This was another thinly-veiled slam against Trump, who has suggested a temporary ban on Muslim immigration to the United States. Haley is not the first prominent Republican to speak against this proposal; House Speaker Paul Ryan has also said of the Muslim ban, “This is not conservatism… What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for and, more importantly, it’s not what this country stands for.”
All of this shows how deeply divided today’s GOP is, especially with regard to immigration policy.
Haley navigated these tricky waters just fine in her response last night. Of course, Trump's camp will respond by calling her an "establishment Republican," and her criticism will probably only serve to fire up his supporters even more. This is a challenge for Republicans who disagree with Trump; whenever they try to engage, on whatever issue, he only breezes past the substance of any criticism and uses it to bolster his "outsider" image.
In perhaps the best part of her speech, Haley gave an appealing overview of the conservative agenda, in a way that will appeal to those outside of the GOP base, something Republicans desperately need to do.
“If we held the White House, taxes would be lower for working families, and we’d put the brakes on runaway spending and debt.
“We would reform education so it worked best for students, parents, and teachers, not Washington bureaucrats and union bosses.
“We would end a disastrous health care program, and replace it with reforms that lowered costs and actually let you keep your doctor.
“And rather than just thanking our brave men and women in uniform, we would actually strengthen our military, so both our friends and our enemies would know that America seeks peace, but when we fight wars we win them.
Haley had a hard job, but she did well.