Last night, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley did something extraordinary in delivering what was billed as the GOP's official response to President Obama's State of the Union address.
Yes, Haley made clear her disagreements with the president, as the occasion demanded. But her primary target turned out to be those in the Republican Party who wish to lead the party and the country in a dark direction, a direction in conflict with our traditional values. And she used her own story as the daughter of immigrants from India to make that point. (Full transcript here.)
“My story is really not much different from millions of other Americans," said Haley, whose maiden name was Nimrata Randhawa. "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."
Those are brave words in today's Republican Party, and they are necessary words. (In later interviews, she acknowledged that they were directed at Donald Trump, among others.)
Haley went on to recount in moving terms how her state handled the trauma of the church shooting in Charleston, coming together across racial and party lines to take down the Confederate flag that until then was still flying in a place of honor outside the state Capitol.
And she was refreshingly blunt about our future:
“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.
“And then we need to fix it."
Haley's approach could not have come as a surprise to those in the Republican establishment who controlled that speaking assignment and designated her to fill it. They gave her a mission of offering the public at least a glimpse at a more responsible, optimistic GOP, and she carried out that assignment well. But her message did shock and surprise its intended targets, including Trump and his supporters.
Prior to the speech, Haley had been mentioned often as a potential vice presidential nominee, and it will be fascinating to see what impact last night has on those chances. Charles Krauthammer, a far-right commentator who now implausibly passes for the GOP's sensible middle, lauded her performance as the best SOTU response that he could recall. But at National Review and Breitbart and elsewhere, commenters have been overwhelmingly negative. It's pretty clear that her words do not match the mood of many in her party.
And that's what makes them so important. There's a bitter internal struggle under way over how to define the modern Republican Party, and it's becoming pretty clear that it won't be resolved in this election cycle. Haley has taken a stance against the tide of ugliness, and that should be applauded.