Comment: Nikki Haley and Tim Scott are too nice for the base

Both have great background stories and conservative values, but they play too well with others.

By Robert A. George / Bloomberg Opinion

Fittingly, the first shots in this year’s Republican Party civil war are coming from South Carolina. Former governor and U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley officially declared her campaign for the Republican presidential nomination last week, the first person not named Donald Trump to announce. And the state’s junior senator, Tim Scott, is expected to announce his candidacy soon.

They’re both talented politicians ideally suited for delivering an optimistic view of the party and the conservative movement. And that’s exactly the problem: Right now, Republicans are in no mood for optimism.

The rise of Haley and Scott should be a welcome development for a party desperate to update itself for the 21st century. Both have lived versions of the American Dream; hopeful stories that the nation would do well to hear after years of pandemic and economic uncertainty. Haley is the daughter of Indian immigrants who rose to the highest levels of state and national government; Scott is the African American son of a single mother who joined Congress more than a decade ago after defeating the son of famed segregationist Strom Thurmond.

Haley’s best moment came in 2015, after a white supremacist and Confederate sympathizer killed nine parishioners in Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Succeeding where other Southern governors had failed, Haley led the effort to remove the Confederate flag from flying over the state capitol.

Scott, meanwhile, in his national appearances — addressing the 2020 Republican National Convention and responding to President Joe Biden’s 2021 economic address to Congress — has struck a respectful and collegial tone. In the last three years, he’s been the main Republican negotiator on police reform. He often chastises Democrats for walking away from talks, but usually in more in sorrow than in anger.

The problem is that, for the Republican base and their candidate, it’s all about anger. As president, Trump attacked and belittled everyone; Democrats, the media, the so-called “Deep State” and, when he felt it necessary, his fellow Republicans. In his announcement speech for the 2024 nomination, he declared that he’s still “angry and upset.”

This stance resonates with Americans wary of a well-connected elite; and Trump’s willingness to criticize that elite is enough for the GOP base to embrace him. That base will not tolerate a candidate willing to compromise with Democrats, apologize when the mainstream media demands it or be steamrolled by allegedly “woke” corporate America.

Other Republicans besides Trump realize this, too. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has risen in popularity among Republicans because he goes out of his way to be combative; whether against federal health guidelines during covid or tax breaks for Disney following a dispute over teaching sexuality in public schools. The base likes DeSantis because he picks the right enemies. The aggressiveness is the point.

In this environment, with outrage as the GOP’s animating emotion, Scott and Haley can’t afford to be Mr. Nice Guy and Ms. Normal. And there is a further complication: Public displays of anger are fraught for both of them, owing to certain uncomfortable stereotypes. Aggressive women are not often received well in politics, as a certain former Democratic presidential candidate has noted. And an aggressive Black man? Well, even former president Barack Obama wrestled with how to show “appropriate” anger in public.

Given how traditionalist the base of the Republican Party is, those voters are likely to be sensitive to any deviation from the expected from nontraditional candidates. Haley’s line about the strategic use of her heels won’t be enough. She and Scott need to pick fights against specific targets the base hates. In that regard, Haley’s squabble with CNN’s Don Lemon over his sexist comments about women “in their prime” is a good start.

Still, the question remains: Can the aspirational son or daughter of South Carolina demonstrate that they have the aggressiveness to win the coming war for the Republican Party?

Judging from their temperaments and history, it seems unlikely. Which is too bad, because if Nikki Haley or Tim Scott were the Republican presidential nominee, it would stand as a rebuke to the standard progressive view of conservatives. Most of us do not see ourselves as racist or advocates for white supremacy. To the contrary, many of us welcome a non-white candidate with conservative values and policies. A sunnier, more positive attitude would be a nice change, too.

Robert A. George is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering government and public policy. Previously, he was a member of the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and New York Post.

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