Official responses to the State of the Union address are inherently difficult. The president is able to bask in the national spotlight, interrupted by frequent applause, in a grand and impressive setting. This is then followed soon after by someone standing alone in a room, responding to a speech they have not heard.
There’s a reason this usually doesn’t go well.
But both parties keep giving the gig to their rising stars, and last night was South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s (R) turn. Much of the rhetoric was familiar – did you know Republicans think Obama’s presidency is a big failure? – though the governor talked a bit about being the daughter of Indian immigrants, who faced tough times growing up in the rural South.
“My story is really not much different from millions of other Americans. Immigrants have been coming to our shores for generations to live the dream that is America. They wanted better for their children than for themselves. That remains the dream of all of us, and in this country we have seen time and again that that dream is achievable.“Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory. During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. 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.”
And who, pray tell, might Haley have been referring to with “the angriest voices”? I don’t imagine anyone watching had any doubts.
Later, in the same speech, the governor talked about last year’s brutal mass shooting in a Charleston church, and she celebrated the way the community responded. “We didn’t turn against each other’s race or religion,” Haley said, adding, “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. Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference.”
It created an unexpected dynamic: the official Republican Party response to the State of the Union tried to thread a needle, condemning President Obama, Democrats, Washington, and Donald Trump all at the same time.
Apparently, some conservatives weren’t impressed.
“Trump should deport Nikki Haley,” conservative commentator Ann Coulter tweeted part way through Haley’s speech. She later added: “Nikki Haley says ‘welcoming properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of religion.’ Translation: let in all the Muslims.”Radio host Laura Ingraham also tweeted about Haley’s speech, writing, “[Former Obama official] Van Jones just praised Nikki Haley speech. Enough said.”
As a substantive matter, the right really doesn’t have that much to complain about. Haley tried to strike a moderate tone, but her speech went on to say, “We cannot continue to allow immigrants to come here illegally. And in this age of terrorism, we must not let in refugees whose intentions cannot be determined.” How is this different from the usual conservative line? In every way that matters, it isn’t.
But the fact that Haley sent a not-so-subtle shot across Trump’s bow nevertheless served as a reminder about Republican divisions, and it seems likely that much of the GOP’s far-right base will express some concerns about the South Carolina governor today.
Postscript: Last year, the Republican Party had two official responses, one in English and one in Spanish. Though they were supposed to be the same, the latter included rhetoric on immigration that the former excluded. Last night, it appears the GOP tried to pull the same trick.