ON JUNE 22, Gov. Nikki Haley did something even more extraordinary than calling for the Confederate flag to be removed from South Carolina’s front lawn. She reached out to legislators and asked for help.
She met with Republicans and Democrats, she told them precisely what she intended to do, and she didn’t threaten them if they refused join her.
Quite the opposite, as she told The State’s Andy Shain a week later: “I asked all of them, ‘I’m going to have a 4 o’clock press conference. I would appreciate (it if) you stand with me. And if you don’t stand with me, I will not run against you. I will not call you out on it. I will not go against you on a vote, and I will not tell you were ever at this meeting. If you choose to stand with me, I will be extremely grateful.’”
This was a monumental tactical change for a chief executive who has governed through Facebook posts, “report cards” grading legislators’ performance on her agenda and imperious news conferences. A stunning deviation for a governor who just a month earlier rejected legislators’ suggestion that she write them to ask that they vote for a spending item she wanted, telling them, “I think I did more than a letter.” By holding a news conference. Demanding that they vote her way.
Her call to remove the flag was a departure from her previous interactions with the Legislature in another important way: It was an unqualified success.
Bad input, bad output
Up until June 22, this had not been a good legislative session for Gov. Haley. In that, it was typical.
Her one good year was in 2014, when she was up for re-election, had her base wrapped up and seemed to be comfortable reaching out to general-election voters — and not making the Legislature her punching bag. Lawmakers finally passed a bill that she had advocated to dismantle the Budget and Control Board and turn most of its duties over to the governor. They passed her smart plan to focus the state’s resources on the poorest students, with extra funding for reading instruction, technology improvements and general classroom expenses.
Then the election was over, and the old Nikki Haley returned.
Ethics reform should have been a slam dunk, after the powerful speaker of the House was forced to plead guilty in the fall to multiple corruption counts. The governor demanded reform — as she had the previous two sessions. But her govern-by-bullying style turned potential allies into adversaries. And the state’s most powerful senator, never a fan of reform, dug in his heels after she went to his hometown and, with his wife sitting in the audience, called him out as the reason the ethics bill wasn’t moving.
She had refused during the campaign to say how she would fix our state’s pock-marked highways and deteriorating bridges, instead promising to roll out a plan after the election. Little wonder: Her plan was to address an $800-million-a-year backlog by slashing taxes by more than three times as much as she would raise them. Seriously. It was so irresponsible that it torpedoed a legislative effort that was well on its way to passage. House leaders — traditionally a Republican governor’s only sure allies, since they’re not, well, senators — felt blindsided, and angry, because they had gone out on a limb and taken their caucus with them to support a tax hike to fix the roads.
Their anger only increased after the governor likened those same Republican leaders to President Obama, saying they were running up credit card debt for frivolities when they proposed to take advantage of low interest rates by issuing bonds to pay for long-neglected state building needs.
As bad as lawmakers
The governor probably did help get a law passed that makes it easier to prosecute domestic violence, increases penalties and adds an anti-domestic-violence component to public school health classes. Not by creating a task force to study the issue after the Legislature had practically passed its bill, but by quietly reversing course and embracing a provision requiring people convicted of domestic violence to forfeit their right to own guns. That is to say: She helped the legislation along by not hurting it.
If I judge her on the same criteria on which I judged the Legislature for its pre-flag work, she fares at least as badly as the House, possibly down there with the Senate.
Like the Legislature, she did nothing to respond to the Supreme Court order to repair a school system that deprives children in poor districts of a decent education; nothing to reform a judicial selection system that allows legislators to keep judges on a short leash. She did nothing to reform a tax system that is more loophole than whole or a spending system designed to maintain the status quo or a convoluted executive branch that is hamstrung by an over-controlling Legislature. She did nothing to free local governments from their legislative shackles.
And there’s no evidence that she did anything, beyond signing the already passed bills, to contribute to the Legislature’s handful of successes.
Fluke or new style?
But of course there is no such thing as the pre-flag 2015 legislative session. There is only the 2015 legislative session. The flag has been such a super-sized elephant sprawled out and snoring in the middle of the State House for so very long that even though it is mere symbol, it overshadows all else. It is the criterion on which the session ever will be judged. It is the criterion on which the governor is judged.
And she was remarkably successful.
She approached legislators and other leaders the right way. She made the public case the right way. She even called down her fanatic Facebook fans, cautioning them to be kind as legislators took up the debate. She was available to do whatever her floor leaders needed — including nothing when that was the best thing for her to do.
The question going forward is whether the flag was a fluke. Whether, apparently faced with the first thing she really wanted to accomplish, she did something she has never done before and will never do again. Or whether she has learned that part of her job is to get things accomplished in the Legislature and that to get things accomplished in the Legislature, she has to actually … work with legislators.
If she has learned this lesson, it’s hard to imagine that she won’t be tremendously successful. It’s tempting to say that’s unfortunate, because she has some awful ideas that would do a lot of damage to our state. But she also has some really good ideas, which would help our state — from ethics reform to more gubernatorial power to the smartly focused programs for poor children in poor schools that she gave us a down payment on last year.
More importantly, she’s the person voters elected to be our governor, overwhelmingly, and the voters deserve for her to succeed. And she can — if only she tries.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.