Nikki Haley should have run for president

Story highlights

  • Issac Bailey: Haley's State of the Union response highlighted why she is superior to most of the GOP candidates
  • After Charleston massacre, she responded appropriately and got South Carolina to take down Confederate flag

Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for the past two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman Fellow. Twitter: @ijbailey The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)For a second there, I thought South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley might pull a Marco Rubio and take a desperate sip of water during her Republican response to President Obama's final State of the Union speech.

Issac Bailey
Just when it seemed she might be overwhelmed by the moment, though, she hit her stride and began looking every bit the part of someone ready for the political prime time. Referencing the Charleston shooting changed the trajectory of her performance Tuesday night the way her leadership in the aftermath of the massacre changed her political fortunes, catapulting her to the top of the list of potential Republican vice presidential nominees.
During Tuesday night's speech, she smoothly transitioned from delivering GOP red meat, slamming Obama, to pushing back against Donald Trump and grabbing the hope and change baton from the President.
"What happened after the tragedy is worth pausing to think about," she said. "Our state was struck with shock, pain and fear. But our people would not allow hate to win. We didn't have violence; we had vigils. We didn't have riots; we had hugs. We didn't turn against each other's race or religion. We turned toward God, and to the values that have long made our country the freest and greatest in the world."
Before the Charleston shooting, Haley still wasn't fully embraced by her own party in the state; she clashed with leaders of the General Assembly leaders, which is run by Republicans. And she still makes the skin of many Democrats crawl because of her support for tough immigration and voter ID laws, as well as her refusal to accept billions of dollars of federal dollars through the Affordable Care Act.
But she helped guide South Carolina through an event that harkened back to its worst era while making the seemingly impossible happen, removing the Confederate flag from the state house lawn.
For those who don't understand, pulling off that feat was just as miraculous as successfully separating conjoined twins.

A stronger candidate than Palin, Fiorina, Rubio and Cruz

The irony is that her rise came fast enough to elevate her onto the national stage, but maybe a little too late. Her enormous value could end up being wasted this year on a vice presidential nomination -- because she's much better suited to be on top of the ticket.
Haley, not Bobby Jindal, is the closest thing to a Republican version of Obama. She's a young (she'll be 44 years old in a week), attractive groundbreaking candidate, too.
She's a reflection of emerging demographics, too; she called herself "the proud daughter of Indian immigrants."
She's a Sarah Palin who can give a great speech and answer in one-on-one interviews which newspapers she reads and which Supreme Court cases she detests.
She's a Carly Fiorina who doesn't have to explain away her performance as a chief executive. Under her watch, even though the state's economy leaves too many people behind, a record number of South Carolinians are working and portions of the manufacturing industry are seeing a resurgence.
She's a Marco Rubio without the Washington baggage. Her refusal to expand Medicaid may be bad for poor residents but puts her a step ahead of Republicans in Congress who couldn't get Obamacare repealed after promising for years to do so.
She knows how to hit her opponents as hard as Ted Cruz but doesn't remind voters of Joe McCarthy.

Making history

Obama has made historic appointments to the Supreme Court and in the attorney general's office. Haley appointed Tim Scott to the U.S. Senate, paving the way for him to become the first black man from the Deep South since the Reconstruction era to be voted into that body.
Obama helped steer the country out of the Great Recession and away from a second Great Depression and into the longest unbroken streak of monthly job creation in the nation's history. And he's guided the nation through seemingly countless natural and man-made disasters.
One hundred and fifty years after the end of a Civil War many South Carolinians continue fighting any way, Haley helped lead the state peacefully through the aftermath of a young white supremacist's killing of nine black people in one of the nation's most historic churches. Her response to devastating, never-before-seen floods months later reeked of competence in a state whose congressional delegation once protested pork spending by voting against Hurricane Sandy relief.
For all those reasons, and more, the GOP tapped her to respond to Obama.
The irony is that if the party is looking for a candidate who will bring something in the second spot to the ticket that can move the needle, Haley likely isn't it.
Despite her enormous political talent, she's from one of the redder states in the union, meaning Haley's presence would do nothing to improve the party's electoral prospects.
And because she's a member of a party that most minorities -- blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans -- view as hostile, her personal appeal won't matter. She may be able to move the needle among those groups a little more than, say, Dr. Ben Carson, but not much at all.
That's why she's in the odd position of being the ideal vice presidential candidate who should have run for president. If the tragedies during which her leadership abilities shined most had happened in 2014 and not 2015, maybe she would have.
Republicans will be tempted to call on her to bring a new image and energy to the party's 2016 presidential push. Had they the foresight, they would have pushed her to reach for higher office. Obama was the Democrats' answer to the 21st century and refused to be told to wait his turn. Haley could have played that role for the GOP.
Only time will tell if she missed her window.