The XX Factor

The Lessons of Nikki Haley

Among the crazies and “whores” and not-a-witches and bark-like-a-dogs  who make up the gang of conservative mean girls, one female candidate stays above the fray. When we think of Mama Grizzlies who say embarrassing things or have embarrassing things said about them, Nikki Haley almost never comes to mind.  Since her primary, the candidate for South Carolina governor, who is safely ahead in the polls, appears in the headlines for things that mostly interest only local voters: her taxes, her severance deal with a hospital chain, whether or not she knows the exact number of people who work in the local Department of Education.

This is not because there is no fodder for embarrassment. During the primary, a state representative called Haley a “F—ing raghead.” A blogger and a local operative claimed to have had an affair with Haley, who is a married mother of two.  Haley is the kind of ultraconservative who should make liberal bloggers crazy, believing as she does that people should be drug tested to get unemployment benefits, and that local libraries short on cash should be funded by corporations.

So how does Haley manage to stay above the fray? Partly it’s her personality. I just watched her campaign in South Carolina, and, her particular gift is combining outsider Tea Party zeal with a think-tank wonkish sobriety. No whiff of crazy at all. Partly, she has mastered the new response mode that the next generation of women in politics will have to model. Studies show that sexist type insults-“ice queen,” “mean girl”-undercut a woman politician’s political standing . But she can regain it if she responds in just the right way. Meg Whitman did this in her debate with Jerry Brown . When he was asked about the “whore” comment and failed to be contrite, Whitman said that it was not just her, but also the people of California who did not like such attacks.

Haley has done it even better.  After the affair allegations, she ran one campaign ad with her family and then never mentioned it again. The allegations have come up again with more details, but still she has ignored them, making her accusers look like “lovesick” wackos . Instead, Haley has let her supporters feel the outrage for her, and thus remained personally untouched by it all. She doesn’t run as an aggrieved woman, or an Indian woman or a mom or any kind of woman. She runs as a neutral reformer, and thus slips through.

Photograph of Nikki Haley by Getty Images.