WASHINGTON – Donald Trump is driving the Republican Party into the abyss. Can Nikki Haley pull it back?
Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner, talks of immigrants as rapists and women as bimbos and appeals to the angry white man. He invokes the “silent majority,” employs racial dog whistles and picks fights with everybody, but conspicuously with two well-known broadcasters, a Latino and a woman.
Then there is Haley, young and charismatic, often mentioned as a vice presidential prospect. The child of Indian immigrants, she is the first woman and the first member of a minority group to be governor of South Carolina. She responded admirably and forcefully to the police killing in her state of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, and she championed legislation to put cameras on police officers statewide – the first of its kind.
She wept with the mourners after a massacre at a black church in Charleston, and she led the subsequent effort to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds. She told her children about Cynthia Hurd, one of the Charleston victims, whose motto was to “be kinder than necessary.”
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“That’s now my life motto,” Haley, 43, said Wednesday afternoon.
Nobody ever mistook that for Trump’s motto. And Haley, although kinder than she needed to be, visited Washington on Wednesday with some sharp words for the man who has become the party’s standard-bearer.
“Every time someone criticizes him, he goes and makes a political attack back,” Haley said when asked about Trump during an appearance at the National Press Club. “That’s not who we are as Republicans. That’s not what we do.”
Americans, Haley said, “want to know they’re sending someone up to the White House that’s going to be calm and cool-tempered and not get mad at someone just because they criticize him. We would really have a world war if that happens.”
She also had advice for Trump on his immigration stance, which includes ending birthright citizenship and building a wall along the Mexican border.
“Republicans need to remember that the fabric of America came from these legal immigrants,” she said. “If you want to talk about tackling illegal immigration, then let’s talk about it, but we don’t need to attack so many millions of people who came here … and did it the right way, like my parents.”
Haley wasn’t finished. “Why are you going all the way to this side and talking about birthright citizenship when you haven’t even talked about illegal immigration itself?” she asked. “Are you as a candidate going to commit to putting troops along the border?” She also cited the high cost of drones, planes, and detention and deportation capabilities, which would be needed. Concluded the governor: “Don’t say you’re just going to build a wall, because a wall’s not going to do it.”
At times implicit and at times explicit, it was clearly a rebuke of Trump from a lonely voice of tolerance within the party. More of this is needed, and fast, if the GOP is to avoid Trump’s siren call to alienate everybody but the party’s shrinking demographic base. Jeb Bush is finally challenging Trump, but for being insufficiently conservative. Trump’s rivals remain hesitant to condemn his winks at bigotry.
Haley is no squish. A darling of the tea party movement when she was elected in 2010, she noted Wednesday her support for voter I.D. laws, which are often viewed as a way to suppress African-American voters, and she blamed the Black Lives Matter movement for fomenting violence. But she offered a conciliatory racial message that could be a balm for a party alienating non-white Americans with its outlandish presidential contest.
She spoke of the discrimination her family faced when she was young, and of the need for an “equality agenda” for African-Americans. “There still remain the unfinished goals of the civil rights movement, and the civil rights movement is a critical part of the American movement, and the American story. It’s a movement in which every person regardless of their skin color is treated equally under the law.”
Citing the rapid move to prosecute Walter Scott’s killer and her successful effort to remove the Confederate flag, she asked for better behavior from her fellow Republicans. “The problem for our party is that our approach often appears cold and unwelcoming to minorities,” she said. “That’s shameful and that has to change. … It’s on us to communicate our positions in ways that wipe away the clutter of prejudices.”
Maybe those battling to lead the Republican ticket will take a cue from their would-be running mate.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.