Opinion | Nikki Haley goes on Civil War autopilot, runs over her own campaign

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Nikki Haley offered a really lousy answer on Wednesday night about the cause of the Civil War during a town hall in Berlin, N.H. On Thursday morning, she complained that the questioner was “definitely a Democrat plant,” as if she had been hit with a tricky or unfair question.

Decide for yourself if there was anything tricky or unfair about the question, or if — as someone is certain to complain — Haley’s words are somehow being taken out of context. Here’s the entire exchange verbatim:

Questioner: What was the cause of the United States Civil War?

Haley: Well, don’t come with an easy question or any — I mean, 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. What do you think the cause of the Civil War was?

[The questioner’s answer is inaudible.]

Haley: I’m sorry?

[The questioner gets a microphone.]

Questioner: I’m not running for president. I, I, I wanted to see what your —

Another person: It’s a good thing!

Questioner: — on the cause of the Civil War.

Haley: I mean, I think it always comes down to the role of government, and what the rights of the people are. 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 have 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. They need to make sure that you have freedom. We need to have capitalism. We need to have economic freedom. We need to make sure that we do all things so that individuals have the liberties — so that they can have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to do or be anything they want to be without government getting in the way.

Questioner: Thank you. And in the year 2023, it is astonishing to me that you answered that question without mentioning the word “slavery.”

Haley: What do you want me to say about slavery?

Questioner: No, um, you’ve answered my question. Thank you.

Haley: Next question.

In or out of the full context, the answer stinks. It’s gobbledygook. It’s as if someone took Haley’s usual stump speech, printed it onto those little “fridge poetry” magnet words and smushed them around on the refrigerator door.

Even if you cut Haley some slack — she didn’t expect the question and was speaking off the cuff — a person really has to bend over backward to not mention slavery at all in a 200-word answer about what caused the Civil War. Even when prompted by the questioner’s mention of slavery, she didn’t say, “Whoops, I forgot to mention that, sorry, it has been a long day.” She seemed to see no need to expand on her answer — or to recognize the political mess she was plunging her campaign into.

This is going to lead to a lot of accusations that Haley is some sort of neo-Confederate or slavery apologist, which is tough to align with the fact that in 2015, as South Carolina’s governor, she chose to remove the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds.

No, this was just a hideous demonstration of what happens when a candidate goes on verbal autopilot and has apparently developed instincts to placate those in her home state who don’t want to believe that the Civil War featured one side with a righteous cause and one side with a lost cause that defended a fundamentally evil system.

Even when Haley announced the flag’s removal, she said, “For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble — traditions of history, of heritage and of ancestry. … At the same time, for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past. As a state, we can survive, as we have done, while still being home to both of those viewpoints. We do not need to declare a winner and loser.” Haley wanted to remove the flag but also never wanted to antagonize those who romanticized the Confederate cause.

Thursday morning, Haley appeared on New Hampshire talk-radio host Jack Heath’s show. In addition to complaining about Democrats planting questions at her town halls, Haley declared, “Of course, the Civil War was about slavery, that’s the easy part. Yes, I know it was about slavery. I am from the South.” Funny how doing the easy part was so hard the night before.

Even the paeans to liberty in Haley’s answer don’t really hold up: “They”— the government — “don’t need to tell you what you can and can’t do” and “They don’t need to be a part of your life”? Come on, isn’t the government telling you “what you can and can’t do” a big part of why it exists? And short of living in the woods in a shack like the Unabomber, you’re going to need and want the government to be “a part of your life” — roads, schools, EMTs — in some way.

But, hey, how much can a screw-up in New Hampshire derail a candidacy? Well, Marco Rubio was doing pretty well in the 2016 GOP campaign until the debacle of his bizarre robotic debate performance in the Granite State. Haley clearly thought he’d survive — she endorsed him a couple of weeks later. She must be hoping for a better outcome from this self-inflicted wound.

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Opinion | Nikki Haley goes on Civil War autopilot, runs over her own campaign

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