Cindi Ross Scoppe

Nikki Haley: much good accomplished, much damage done, much potential squandered

Gov. Nikki Haley signs bill to remove Confederate flag

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signs a bill to remove the Confederate flag from the S.C. State House grounds.
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South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signs a bill to remove the Confederate flag from the S.C. State House grounds.

NIKKI HALEY was two days from what should be her final State of the State address and nine days from her first confirmation hearing when she reflected on how her tenure as South Carolina’s governor had prepared her to serve as U.N. ambassador. “Everything I’ve ever done leading up to this point,” she told reporters, “has always been about diplomacy.”

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It’s tempting to call that a strained reframing of her current job, an attempt to overcome reasonable if likely inconsequential doubts about her capacity for what we expect will be her next job. And of course it elicited waves of gaping jaws and rolling eyes in the Legislature, where the governor’s sustained attempts at diplomacy can be counted on a single hand, with fingers left to spare.

But it also may have been the most self-revelatory thing she has ever said. In that claim, she explained her entire six years as governor.

Nikki Haley was not, as she so long seemed to be, Mark Sanford in a skirt, someone who was largely incapable of dealing diplomatically with others. No, she was someone who made choices about when to get along and when not to.

Where she wanted to succeed — recruiting jobs, providing leadership through natural and man-made disasters, removing the Confederate flag from the State House grounds — she employed those diplomatic skills. She was charming and gracious; she met people halfway. And she succeeded.

Where she did not want to succeed — in her relationship with the Legislature, and therefore in so many legislative initiatives — she did not employ those skills. Instead, she went out of her way to antagonize. Predictably, she failed.

Of course, being governor isn’t just about diplomacy. It’s also about running things, about hiring the right people, giving them the right marching orders, firing the wrong people. And it’s about being the face of our state, setting the tone, demonstrating our priorities and values. Here, too, the record is mixed.

Scoring big wins

When Nikki Haley took office, we had just come off a recession and a governor who could be hostile toward economic development efforts. So even without an aggressive governor and a talented commerce secretary, it would have taken some doing for the economy not to improve. But she did pick a talented commerce secretary, Bobby Hitt, and she did work closely with him, and they brought the big fish to South Carolina, along with schools of minnows, they encouraged S.C. businesses to expand, and 400,000 more people are employed today than when she took office. Governors, like presidents, get credit or blame for the economy, regardless of how much impact they have individually. So she gets a great deal of credit here.

The same is true for the way she led our state through the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, and the floods of 2015, and the hurricane of 2016, and smaller crises.

Although she made the right calls when calls were called for, mostly what’s needed at such times is an unquantifiable, perhaps even emotional thing: A governor either does an awful job, an adequate job or a superior job. We’ll never know whether another governor could have handled the moments of crisis as well as she did, but time after time, Gov. Haley did a superior job. She was practical and strong and compassionate. She was open, she explained what was happening and made people believe that together we could get through the crisis and beyond it. She not only offered hope for healing when we needed it most, but when the nation turned its attention to South Carolina, she presented a smart, calm and confident face — which is not the face the nation was used to seeing.

But there can be no equivocation on this: The Confederate flag would still be flying on South Carolina’s front lawn if not for her. And I seriously doubt that a different governor could have pulled off what she did.

She didn’t simply provide political cover for legislators who wanted to remove the flag, or at least knew it was the right thing to do — although she did that, and the value of that should not be underestimated. She also framed the issue perfectly, creating space for all but the most rabid of flag supporters to agree that it was time to remove it, without having to denounce their ancestors or even acknowledge that our state had deliberately used the flag to tell African-Americans they were second-class citizens.

Aggressive or adversarial?

The Legislature runs South Carolina, so no governor can do much to improve our state without the Legislature’s cooperation. But aside from the flag, Nikki Haley did not court legislators: She lectured them, threatened them and mocked them. She treated them like middle-school students, with her report cards showing how much each bent to her will.

When the Legislature passed laws that she supported, it was nearly always because legislators already wanted those laws. Convincing the Legislature to do things it didn’t already want to do is a different matter.

South Carolina has a better ethics law than we had six years ago, and Gov. Haley’s successors will have more authority over the executive branch than her predecessors did. But the argument can be made that the reforms came in spite of her, that we would have made even more progress on both fronts if she had tried some of that diplomacy.

Her bully pulpit got her Facebook followers riled up. But did that turn votes, or turn off legislators and cause them to dig in their heels? Again, we can never know for sure. I suspect she deserves some credit, for helping keep the topics front and center.

But dismantling the Budget and Control Board, letting governors select the lieutenant governor and adjutant general, making minor reforms at the Transportation Department — none of that would have happened without the persistent efforts of legislators who were working for those reforms long before the governor joined the team. Ditto ethics reforms. At crucial points in most of those debates, she antagonized legislators whose support was crucial to passage.

One of her most important successes was helping change the conversation about public education — helping Republicans accept the reality that the state has not provided an equal opportunity for impoverished children to get a decent education. But that acknowledgment has not yet translated into sufficient action.

The good thing about the governor’s habit of attacking legislators rather than wooing them is that many of her bad ideas were rejected as well. At the top of the list: a plan to raise the gas tax while slashing income taxes by three times as much. Lawmakers wisely concluded that leaving the gas tax alone was better than that absurd trade-off, but this meant no significant progress on our road problems.

Standing by her appointments

Gov. Haley, with more appointment power than her predecessors, made a lot of hires that seemed to work out OK, one extraordinarily well. But she also made some bad hires or else gave her appointees bad directions — or both. Worse, she tended to wait too long to acknowledge problems, much less correct them.

Lillian Koller at the Department of Social Services focused single-mindedly on slashing welfare numbers while babies her agency was supposed to protect died of abuse and neglect — and the governor stood behind her for months.

James Etter at Revenue went a year without a computer-security director while hackers made off with the Social Security numbers and other personal data of 6.4 million individuals and businesses — and the governor refused even to acknowledge that anyone in South Carolina could have done anything to prevent the breach.

Gangs seized a foothold and staged violent riots at Juvenile Justice when Sylvia Murray went three years without a police chief, and a year with no gang-intervention specialist or rapid-response team.

At DHEC, making life easier for polluters became even more of a priority, as protecting the public health receded further into the background — and we suffered the failure of dozens of dams that had been insufficiently overseen.

Overstepping her authority

Being governor means setting a political and moral tone, and despite doing that well in times of crisis, Gov. Haley wounded our state time after time through her carelessness with the truth, her refusal to admit her mistakes and, most seriously, her utter contempt for the rule of law.

This is a governor who had Occupy Columbia protesters arrested for violating laws that did not exist, and that she wouldn’t have had the authority to enforce even if they did exist. This is a governor who persuaded her political party to put unqualified candidates on the ballot, in defiance of a direct order from the state Supreme Court. This is a governor who attempted to order the Legislature into “special session” in a way that violated the state constitution. A governor who essentially rewrote a section of the state budget after it was enacted, again in violation of the constitution. This is a governor who repeatedly had to be called back into line by state and federal courts — leaving the taxpayers to pick up the bill for defending her lawlessness. This is a governor who went so far as to vilify an ally when he refused to defy the rule of law.

The courts blocked the governor’s outlaw actions, but the damage was still done. In a world where everyone seems determined to play on teams, Gov. Haley taught everyone on her team that there’s nothing wrong with a governor overstepping her authority — as long as it’s the governor of your team. And no, the fact that her contemporaneous president convinced his team of that — and that our new president has done it in spades — does not make it any less insidious.

Better than many, but far from great

So it’s a bittersweet good-bye to Nikki Haley: so much accomplished, but so much damage done, and so much potential squandered.

On the basis of her economic success and the flag alone, Gov. Haley towers over Mark Sanford and Jim Hodges and David Beasley. But Carroll Campbell and Dick Riley? She’s not even in their league.

Yes, it’s an accomplishment for a governor to leave office with a respectable record, let alone one extraordinary success. But her sins of commission were not insignificant. Neither were her sins of omission.

In a state that so desperately needs significant improvement — in education and health and protecting the vulnerable and, yes, in good-paying jobs — it’s frustrating, even depressing to think of how much more she could have accomplished … if only she had chosen to do so.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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