A number of times recently when I’m being interviewed — informally at a cocktail reception, or formally on radio or the tube — I make reference to the fact that Nikki Haley peaked on May 14, 2010. I was there; I saw it.
It was the Friday evening when Sarah Palin came to call.
It was also the moment, three-plus weeks out, when it first became evident to me that she was going to win the primary.
I don’t think I wrote about that particular epiphany at the time. Instead, I wrote about how disturbingly alienated I felt at that Tea Party event. There was something really unpleasant going on, something different from the usual obnoxious nonsense one hears at political gatherings — that is to say, something that was obnoxious in a different way — and I felt compelled to analyze it. Nikki’s political fortunes weren’t so much on my mind at the moment, although I did remark on the startling change in her:
A little over a year ago, Nikki Haley was just an idealistic sophomore legislator who was touchingly frustrated that her seniors in her party didn’t roll over and do what she wanted them to do when she wanted them to do it. It didn’t really worry me when I would try to explain to her how inadequate such bumper sticker nostrums as “run government like a business” were (based in a lack of understanding of the essential natures not only of government, but of business, the thing she professes to know so well), and she would shake her head and smile and be unmoved. That was OK. Time and experience would take care of that, I thought. She was very young, and had experienced little. Understanding would come, and I felt that on the whole she was still a young lawmaker with potential.
I reckoned without this — this impatient, populist, drive for power BASED in the appeal of simplistic, demagogic opposition to experience itself. It’s an ugly thing, this sort of anti-intellectualism of which Sarah Palin has become a national symbol. This attitude that causes her to smile a condescending, confident smile (after all, the crowd there is on HER side) at protesters — protesters I didn’t even notice until she called attention to them — and tell them that they should stick around and maybe they would learn something. If a 65-year-old male intellectual with a distinguished public career said that to a crowd, everyone would understand it was ugly and contemptuous. But Sarah is so charming about it, so disarming! How could it be ugly?
Whenever I had met with her in the past, she had been so … demure. She was the idealistic young lady who was just deeply shocked that those mean old men at the State House didn’t understand that she was trying to do the right thing and that they should just be gentlemen and help her do it…
Which perhaps was her reading of what I wanted her to be, so she played that part. But I had thought it was real. And we endorsed her — twice.
Anyway, I didn’t write “Nikki’s going to win this thing” at the time, but it was on my mind. One reason I didn’t come out and SAY it, I guess, was that, well, that was Brad the INTP at his most intuitive. It would have driven the engineer types like Doug nuts, and when they demanded the geometric proof, I would come up a little short on evidence.
But personally, I had sort of learned over the years to trust that impression. I first experienced it covering my first statewide race, in 1978 in Tennessee. All the experienced reporters at the big papers were saying the race between Lamar Alexander and Jake Butcher was too close to call. But I had been closely covering both of them — I had spent a full week with each, sometimes 20 hours a day, riding in the cars and campaign planes with them, eating with them, standing right next to them when they interacted with voters, being right there in their good moments and their bad… (We used to do that sort of thing in the old days. It was called “covering an election.” News organizations don’t spend that kind of money any more, and campaigns don’t allow that kind of access to candidates. Now, most people follow the “Nixon in ’68″ approach. That’s why the media loved John McCain — he let the walls down.) Anyway, I had seen in Alexander a candidate who was winning, and in Butcher a furtive, uncomfortable guy who couldn’t possibly be winning.
It was a look in the eye, a note in the voice, a certain energy.
And it turned out I was right.
Anyway, Nikki had that on May 14. Just watch and see if you see it. Sure, there were rough spots — such as the Freudian-sounding slip when she says “You know, I’ve spent the last six years trying to get people to understand the power of my voice,” then hastily corrects, “the power of their voice” — but on the whole, you’re looking at a candidate who is in the zone.
When you watch this, you will hear most of the things you’ve now grown tired of hearing her repeat. Only back then it had a freshness, magnified both by her confidence and the uncritical cheers of the crowd — a crowd that did not and never would challenge her self-shaped myth of the great businesswoman who had much to teach government as she chastised it.
Nikki defenders will say, “She’s still GOT that energy, and you’ll see next Tuesday.” But no, not really. That was her peak, back then. The only question since then has been the rate at which the air would run out of that balloon. She was flying so high then, the issue ever since has been how much altitude she could afford to lose by Election Day. She’s been losing air all along; her bumper-sticker sound clips have seemed a bit staler, a bit more brittle, with each repetition. (You’ll note some really sharp ironies, such as when she calls for income disclosure for legislators, or talks about what a great accountant she is…)
Right now, it looks as though she has enough altitude left to make it through Tuesday — although for all the many reasons cited on this blog the eventual crash is inevitable. (What worries me, as I wrote back here, is that the crash will come in early 2011 instead of before Election Day, leaving us with 3-plus years of a lame-duck governor, when SC needs so much more.)
But whatever happens Tuesday, this was the day on which she was flying the highest.