Governor Haley began her response magnanimously, recognizing the importance of President Obama’s election to the country and alluding to the troubled pasts of South Carolina and the union as a whole. Although Haley extended a gracious hand to the other side of the aisle in the opening moments of her speech, she soon harshly condemned the perceived difference between Obama’s rhetoric and his record. Haley claimed Obama has been ineffectual in dealing with both the economy and terrorism and expressed her desire for a “new direction” for America.
Haley’s remarks contained many conventional Republican quarrels with Obama’s presidency, but in a marked departure from previous responses to the State of the Union, admitted that Republicans shared some of the blame for the public’s distrust of government. She further distinguished herself from Republican orthodoxy by referring to her parents, who were Indian immigrants, and expressing approval for the hard work of modern immigrants of all races and religions.
Haley did not attempt to radically challenge or reform her party’s ideals, concluding her speech with the standard conservative promises of lowering taxes, spending, and union influence while protecting religious liberty, the Second Amendment, and Israel. She concluded her response with a sentiment of caution, one quite unlike the roundly optimistic timbre of Obama’s speech.
Of course, for Haley and the rest of the Republican Party, the nation is indeed in a time of change that might make the party obsolete if it cannot, in Haley’s own words, rise to the challenge of a new America. By choosing Haley to deliver its response to Obama’s last State of the Union, the Republican Party attempted to rebrand itself. Haley was dexterous in recognizing the apolitical virtue of Obama’s election and in drawing attention to her own dissimilarity to the traditional white, male, wealthy Republican.
However, even as people like Haley redefine the archetypal Grand Old Party member, the policies of the party remain the same. Haley’s calls to “stand up for [Republican] beliefs” reinforced beliefs that are identical to those the party has had for decades. Those that have been used to deny gay and transgender Americans their rights. Those that have been used to justify reckless war. Those that have been used to benefit the children of the wealthiest at the expense of those most in need. Haley, and her speech, do mark a change for the Republican Party, but it is one of style and not substance.