Madam Secretary or not, Nikki Haley still a star

Story highlights

  • Issac Bailey: Trump's consideration of Haley for Cabinet post could lift her star higher
  • She may lack experience, but those on left and right are wrong to dismiss her, he says

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

(CNN)The oddest thing has happened. In the wake of the 2016 election and Hillary Clinton's loss, South Carolina has inadvertently positioned itself to become the state that could produce the nation's first woman president: Nikki Haley.

Issac Bailey
Back in January, I wondered if Gov. Haley had missed her window to take advantage of her enormous political potential on a national stage. She's smart, a quick-learner and one of the craftiest politicians in the nation. Yet instead of running for the top job, she was then giving the GOP response to President Obama's final State of the Union address and being talked up as a vice presidential prospect for candidates who soon washed out of the race.
    Now, it looks as though that window may not be closed after all, as Haley is reportedly in the running to be secretary of state in the Donald Trump administration. If, as the daughter of Indian immigrants, she becomes America's top diplomat (or even if she manages her consideration wisely), she will be back in line to do in her party what Obama did in his: break barriers while backed by a diverse coalition of Americans.
    There's one obvious catch -- she'd have to work for Donald Trump, a man she rightly stiffed-arm throughout the Republican primary and did not openly support or endorse during the general election, despite high-level pressure to fall in line with other Republican leaders.
    In South Carolina, Haley has seen first-hand the extreme end of what can happen in the kind of environment Trump has fostered with his embrace of open bigotry, beginning with his becoming the nation's top birther, to kicking off his campaign describing most Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, and since the election having a top supporter alluding to the internment of the Japanese during World War II, one of America's great sins, as good "precedent" for a possible Muslim registry.
    Haley has cried with the families in Charleston who lost loved ones because a young white supremacist allegedly decided that a massacre in a historically black church was a proper way for white people who've felt left behind in a browning America to be heard. She then led a group of leaders to do what was once unthinkable: taking down a racially-divisive flag at the state capitol that many South Carolinians (myself included) believed would fly forever. Her handling of that dark period in the Palmetto State, and subsequently record-level flooding and the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, brightened her political prospects like nothing else.
    Being secretary of state could, theoretically, take those prospects from bright to dazzling. But having to do so by working for Trump could diminish her in ways from which her image may not recover. She is now known as the woman who brought down the Confederate flag after it flew for more than 50 years. But Trump's presidency, to many of the people who have rallied around Haley since Dylann Roof became a household name, is akin to putting the Confederate flag right back up, this time not in front of the South Carolina Statehouse but on the White House lawn.
    It's easy to see why Haley's an appealing prospect for the Trump transition team. Hiring her could give Trump something to brag about and his supporters, desperate to deny the bigotry upon which their hero rose to national political prominence, something to point to, his willingness to appoint a woman from a minority group who did not cow to him during the election cycle.
    Foreign policy experts are meanwhile wringing their hands over Haley's lack of experience. "I mean, there may have been foreign policy types who passed through South Carolina, I think there's a BMW factory there," David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy magazine, said during an interview on MSNBC while making clear he thought she would be a terrible choice.
    I understand his reservations. Haley has been an effective governor of one small red state. That's not the foundation upon which a strong foreign policy resumé is built. That inexperience, coupled with some of the other reported hires and appointments Trump is contemplating or has already made, should give everyone pause.
    And I've disagreed with her plenty. I still believe one of her greatest failures is her refusal to accept a Medicaid expansion that would have provided health insurance to maybe 200,000 poor people in our state while creating an estimated 40,000 jobs.
    But regardless of whether she actually gets this job, it's clear to me that those who dismiss Haley are making a serious mistake. I was there when Haley came through Myrtle Beach during her first run for governor and was being mocked then, too, by experts who said she had no shot in a state who had only elected white men for its highest office. Anyone paying attention to how she handled questions during press conferences way back then could see how clear it was that she was a force to be reckoned with. She was then dismissed again during her first term as she traded elbows with a Republican-controlled General Assembly not always allied with her -- until she got the job done, again and again.
    Nobody should be mocking her now. Secretary of state or not, Nikki Haley could be a future political titan in a political party that finds itself with unprecedented levels of national power and internal chaos.
    Now, she's perfectly positioned to do what many believed Hillary Clinton would have. #NeverTrumpers have reason to admire her. Trump supporters have reason to embrace her. And she has an opening with voting populations who have long been skeptical of the GOP and are now even more so because of Trump.
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    If she wisely manages even the possibility of her being appointed secretary of state, in four years, heading the State Department might seem like a job too small for her.