For those of us who grew up in the South, race relations is a tricky topic. From slavery through the Jim Crow era, we Southerners are painfully aware of the racism that litters our history as a region. Trust me, there’s always some leftist somewhere who can’t wait to point it out to us.
I’ve never run for office, but I can imagine that for a politician in the South — especially a conservative — questions about race relations and history sound like “gotcha” questions. That may have been what was on Nikki Haley’s mind at a town hall event in New Hampshire earlier this week when an attendee asked her a historical question.
A voter asked Haley, “What was the cause of the United States Civil War?” Granted, it’s an odd question, but Haley could have answered it quickly and moved on. Instead, she gave the strangest answer imaginable.
“Well, don’t come with an easy question,” she began with a quip. “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.”
She then turned the tables on the man who asked the question and asked him what he thought caused the Civil War. That part of the exchange wasn’t audible on the video of the town hall, but it opened the door for Haley to dig her hole of bizarre answers a little deeper.
“I mean, I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are,” she continued. “And we — 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.”
Haley got even further away from the Civil War, launching into an admirable argument against intrusive government that still didn’t answer the question.
“Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life,” she said. “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.”
The questioner called Haley out for missing the elephant in the room when it comes to the causes of the Civil War, saying, “It’s astonishing to me that you answer that question without mentioning the word ‘slavery.'”
“What do you want me to say about slavery?” she shrugged. “Next question.”
Haley went on local radio in New Hampshire on Thursday to address the kerfuffle. “Of course, the Civil War was about slavery, that’s the easy part,” she told host Jack Heath. “Yes, I know it was about slavery. I am from the South.” She added that the questioner was “definitely a Democrat plant.”
All of that may be true, but it doesn’t explain Haley’s bizarre answer. And it’s true that the causes of the Civil War are more nuanced than simply slavery: economics, states’ rights, and the role of a centralized federal government all played their role in the split between North and South.
So why ignore slavery as a root cause? It would’ve been easy for Haley to say, “Slavery was the immediate cause of the war, but there were other factors involved.” Instead, she launched into politician-speak, saying what it sounded like she thought the audience wanted to hear. By doing so, she managed to insult the audience’s intelligence.
“The real gaffe Haley committed on Wednesday was that, when she froze up under an unpredicted question and defaulted to her factory settings in answering, those answers demonstrated such contempt for the intelligence of her voters,” writes Jeffrey Blehar at National Review. “We can be told the Civil War was about slavery, Nikki — we’re all adults here.”
Blehar adds that “this little gaffe, however minor, memorably reveals something about Haley; we rarely get such accidental insight into how little politicians think of their own voters.”
Rather than answering the question succinctly and moving on, she sounded just like a politician. Haley’s non-answer to the question about the causes of the Civil War was disheartening because she actually said some good things about the role of government in our lives while simultaneously saying nothing at all.
It’s a shame because, for a long time, I had high hopes for Haley’s candidacy. After all, here was a Southern woman — and just like Winston Churchill said, “The most beautiful voice in the world is that of an educated Southern woman” — advocating for an alternative to what the Biden administration has wrought. Since the summer, it’s been gaffe after gaffe for Haley, which makes me wonder if she’s not ready for prime time.