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Nikki Haley went from Confederate flag removal to omitting slavery as Civil War cause

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Let's talk about how the woman responsible for bringing down the Confederate flag in her state became the woman who failed to identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War. Of course, we're talking about former South Carolina governor and presidential hopeful Nikki Haley. While Donald Trump is still dominating in GOP primary polling, Haley presents the most credible challenge to the former president. She had a tough couple of weeks after a voter asked her this at an event...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What was the cause of the United States Civil War?

NIKKI HALEY: Well, don't come with an easy question, right? Yeah, 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.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you. And in the year 2023, it's astonishing to me that you answer that question without mentioning the word slavery.

SHAPIRO: This was a surprise to anyone familiar with Haley's legacy as the governor who ordered the Confederate flag to be removed from the grounds of the state capitol. That happened after the 2015 shooting of Black parishioners at a church in Charleston. NPR national political correspondent Sarah McCammon covered that moment and Nikki Haley herself for years. And she's here in the studio. Hey, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: We just heard about those two contrasting moments - Haley on the Confederate flag and Haley talking about states' rights as the reason for the Civil War. What do you make of that juxtaposition?

MCCAMMON: You know, it is a striking contrast, Ari. I mean, I covered Haley's response to the mass shooting in 2015 at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. That was when a white supremacist walked into a historically Black church and murdered nine people during a Bible study. Haley was there in the aftermath in Charleston, addressing the people of South Carolina. And she expressed the collective grief that everyone was feeling.

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HALEY: We woke up today and the heart and soul of South Carolina was broken. And so we have some grieving to do.

MCCAMMON: And you know, Ari, as you alluded to, it wasn't long afterward that she led the effort to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina's statehouse grounds. Now, she threaded the needle pretty carefully on that. She noted that for many people in South Carolina, the flag stood for their heritage and their history. But she said for many others, it was a, quote, "deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past." And she said that it was - in the aftermath of that shooting, it was time to take the flag down. Here she is signing the bill ordering the flag's removal.

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HALEY: Today, I'm very proud to say that it is a great day in South Carolina.

(APPLAUSE)

MCCAMMON: So, yeah, her remarks last month in which she seemed almost kind of murky about the causes of the Civil War, they did feel a little bit like whiplash.

SHAPIRO: What might have motivated her, in that setting, to answer the question that way?

MCCAMMON: Well, as you know, Haley is running for the Republican nomination against the overwhelming front-runner, Donald Trump, who has repeatedly and from the beginning of his first run for president in 2016, used racially charged rhetoric to appeal to their party's base. And Haley is also certainly aware, particularly having grown up in the Deep South, of the fact that many Americans, particularly on the right, still don't fully acknowledge the centrality of slavery as the cause of the Civil War.

And, you know, it was just Saturday that former President Trump said, during an event in Iowa, that the Civil War might not have been necessary, that it could have been ended through negotiation. I'm not sure how you negotiate about something like slavery. But it just shows that Republican politicians are hesitant in many cases to speak directly about this in front of their voters. You hear Haley focusing on ideas like limited government and individual freedom - ideas that are much more popular with the voters she's trying to reach. And she has walked her statement back to some degree. At another event in New Hampshire, she was asked to explain why she had not identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HALEY: I was thinking past slavery and talking about the lesson that we would learn going forward. I shouldn't have done that. I should have said slavery. But in my mind, that's a given that everybody associates the Civil War with slavery.

MCCAMMON: And she went on to say, hey, look at my record in South Carolina, alluding, of course, to her record in the aftermath of that racist shooting and her efforts to remove the Confederate flag.

SHAPIRO: Let's pull the camera back a little bit. Because back when Haley ordered the Confederate flag removed, she represented the future face of the Republican Party. The GOP was trying to expand the tent, bringing a wider group of voters to help it survive as America became more diverse. Then the party nominated Trump in 2016. And if polls are correct, it looks ready to do so again. Does Nikki Haley fit into the GOP of this moment.

MCCAMMON: In a way, nobody that isn't Donald Trump fits into the GOP of this moment. But I think what Nikki Haley really embodies is the profile of the kind of Republican the party thought it wanted more than a decade ago. So after its midterm losses in 2012, there was - I'm sure you remember - what was known as the Republican autopsy. And one of the things that party leaders said is they needed to reach out to voters of color and respond to the country's changing demographics. So Haley, as a woman and as the daughter of Indian immigrants, would seem to fit that bill. But that is not the direction the party wound up going with, of course, Donald Trump as the nominee in 2016 and 2020, and it looks like very likely again in '24.

SHAPIRO: Well, apart from this particular moment, how has Haley talked about race as she has launched and conducted her presidential campaign?

MCCAMMON: She's made her family's immigration story and her own race a central part of her pitch but in a very strategic way as she talks to Republicans. She spoke about it almost a year ago when she first launched her campaign.

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HALEY: I was the proud daughter of Indian immigrants - not Black, not white. I was different. But my mom would always say, your job is not to focus on the differences, but the similarities.

MCCAMMON: And that second line is the key. Haley, when she talks about her identity, stresses that she doesn't believe in a glass ceiling, for example. And she describes America as a place where anyone can succeed, regardless of their identity. So she represents diversity, but she talks about it in a way that appeals to Republican voters.

SHAPIRO: Have you seen other examples of Haley sending mixed messages in how she talks about other issues? I mean, I'm thinking about the Trump presidency, for example. After January 6, she said history would judge him harshly. But on the campaign trail, she has even said she would pardon him if he's found guilty. Is she trying to have it both ways?

MCCAMMON: You know, so often when I listen to Nikki Haley, I hear somebody who is trying to balance the demands of the Republican base - a base very supportive of Trump - with the wishes of more moderate Republicans and swing voters that she would need were she to somehow win the nomination. You know, I hear this on abortion. She says she's pro-life but doesn't judge people for being pro-choice. And, yes, I hear it when she talks about Trump. She said he was the right candidate in 2016, but she says he's now bringing chaos to the party in the country, and it's time to move on.

SHAPIRO: Is that working for her?

MCCAMMON: I mean, yes and no. She's not the front-runner - nobody but Trump is. And the fact that Haley has been gaining ground in the polls, particularly in New Hampshire, the fact that we and so many other journalists are talking about her, I think indicates the strategy is working to some degree about as well as could be expected.

SHAPIRO: Haley's critics have leveled this attack against her on other issues besides Trump and the Civil War. They accuse her of representing herself one way to some people and a different way to others. Is that an accurate representation?

MCCAMMON: From my observation, Ari, if there is a message that comes through consistently from Nikki Haley, it's that she believes in the fundamentals of the American democratic system and in the ideal of the American dream. And this may be a product of her parents' immigrant experience, which, again, was central to the way she presented herself when she launched this campaign. If you look at survey data, immigrants to the U.S. tend to express a feeling that their lives are better here than they would have been in their countries of origin. And Haley seems to strongly buy into that. You know, she strikes me, perhaps most of all, as a pragmatist. She's a skillful politician, and she will say what she thinks she needs to say to move the ball forward in a very difficult race.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR national political correspondent Sarah McCammon. Thank you.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLYING LOTUS' "FF4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.