“An American Girl,” a White Audience and a Red Balloon

Haley delivered on leadership style but not policy substance. She will never again have a forum as exclusive and timely.

Presidential Candidacy Announcement Video released February 14, 2023.

Declaration Speech, The Shed at the Visitor Center, Charleston SC, February 15 2023.

Former South Carolina Governor and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley had a jewel of an opportunity yesterday to gain influence and support through a presidential candidacy declaration speech. She took to the national political stage during the spectacle of the Chinese spy balloon. The White House had been silent for more than a week. The two men who sit well above her in name recognition and nomination preference polls of Republican registranted voters, Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, already had their signature issues.  These circumstances gave Haley a great chance to leverage her expertise and credibility on foreign affairs to stake out a signature position on national security at a Sputnik-like moment before any of her top competitors. There are always international crises, global hot spots, and superpower spying, but rarely a visible and mysterious menace over American skies. The balloon was recovered off her home state’s coastline to boot. 

Haley delivered on leadership style but not policy substance. The balloon opportunity, um, sailed up, up and away from her. She devoted one sentence to it, and by the next afternoon Biden had filled the void with information.

Haley possesses a subtly forceful manner that extricates her from the notorious double bind which has entrapped women running for president and in other leadership positions: Be too aggressive and sound strident and bitchy, be too demure and seem too weak for the job. Haley uses short declarative sentences, a sly cadence, and a nimbus of self-confidence to project a sense of power:

(From the speech) “I have been underestimated before. That is always fun.”

(From the video) “You should know this about me: I don’t put up with bullies. And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels.”

Her walk-off song at the event, Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” befits her demeanor: hard rock music that’s neither too heavy nor too soft.

The speech and video featured several rapid-fire montages sketching the twin threat of “socialism and self-loathing” which, in Haley’s view, afflicts America today. Haley intends to overcome them with American faith and spirit. Political acumen was not part of her articulated equation. She made only oblique references to her greatest triumph to date as a leader, when as Governor she worked to suture the societal rift cut by the 2015 mass murder in a Black Charleston church by successfully lobbying the state legislature to remove Confederate flags from the State Capitol grounds. 

In the international montages Haley did point out that “It is unthinkable that Americans would look at the sky and see a Chinese spy balloon looking back at us.” But on this, and Russia, and Iran, and Venezuela, and other national security challenges Haley offered little more than attitude. “Strong and proud, not weak and woke, that is the America I see.”

Instead of posing tough questions and shining principles about defending American shores at a time of maximal attention, Haley opted to differentiate herself from Biden, DeSantis, and Trump mainly through age and gender references. Five times she called for leadership from a new generation, one of the oldest clichés in the speechwriters’ manual. When it came to specifics she proposed term limits and mental competency tests for officials over 75 years old.

A fascinating biography is important in presidential politics and Haley trotted out her daughter-of-immigrants, woman-of-color story to passable effect. The personal story arc worked especially well in the video, which opened with a dolly (or drone) shot that followed railroad tracks in her hometown of Bamberg. Haley’s narration presents a good twist on the railroad track trope; she says she was different in being neither black nor white, and that her mom told her that “your job is not to focus on the differences, but the similarities,” a nifty formulation. But on the speech platform, amid dozens of predominantly white faces, her racial not racist appeal fell short to this observer,  although it must be said that they and others in attendance whooped when she declared that “America is not a racist country.” It may be that whitewashed history goes over well with today’s Republicans, especially so when a person of color attests to its truth.

There remains plenty of time for Haley to criticize, propose, and otherwise define the China issue from a hawkish point of view. Beyond the balloon the matters of what to do about trade and tariffs, TikTok, and Taiwan await a nuanced and forceful voice.

But she will never again have a forum as exclusive and timely as she did on the 15th.

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