Nikki Haley, Tim Scott Defy Race Politics in S.C.

Thursday, 09 Sep 2010 11:13 AM

By George Will

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The libretto of this operatic election season, understandably promoted by Democrats and unsurprisingly sung by many in the media, is that Republicans have sown the seeds of November disappointments by nominating candidates other than those the party's supposedly wiser establishment prefers.

This theory is inconvenienced by two facts: South Carolina's Nikki Haley and Tim Scott.

"I am a policy girl," Haley, 38, says demurely. But she is a savvy politician who in 2004 won a state legislature seat by defeating the longest-serving incumbent.

Although the state's Republican establishment opposed her nomination for governor, she won because for two years she has been traveling around the state asking this question: Does anyone think it odd that in 2007 only 8 percent of the decisions by the state House, and only 1 percent of the state Senate's decisions, were taken by recorded votes?

The political class and its parasitic lobbyists preferred government conducted in private. Haley, whose early campaign strategy was exuberantly indiscriminate ("go anywhere and talk to anybody"), won the gubernatorial nomination by defeating the state's lieutenant governor, its attorney general, and a congressman.

She and her state have come a long way since, at about age 5, in her hometown of Bamberg, she and her sister entered the Little Miss Bamberg pageant. It usually crowned a white and a black queen. The flummoxed judges disqualified both Randhawa girls.

If elected, Haley will be the second Indian-American Republican governor in Dixie, joining Louisiana's Bobby Jindal. She, unlike him, does not look like someone from the subcontinent; her faintly olive complexion could be Mediterranean.

Tunku Varadarajan of Stanford's Hoover Institution and New York University's Stern School of Business suggests why they have risen in the Republican Party while no Indian-American has comparably risen in the Democratic Party.

"Could it be that because Democrats put more of an emphasis on identity politics, an Indian-American Democrat would have to contend with other ethnic constituencies that might think that it's 'their turn' first? And once you go down the 'identity' route, your success as a politician tends to rest more on the weight of numbers — the size of your ethnic constituency, or your racial voting bloc — than on the weight of your ideas," Varadarajan says.

Because of his ideas, Tim Scott, 44, an African-American Republican, will be elected the new congressman from the heavily Republican — and 72.8 percent white — 1st District. It includes Charleston, the cradle of secession, in whose harbor sits Fort Sumter.

Scott won the nomination by handily defeating (68 percent to 32 percent) Paul Thurmond — son of Strom, the former governor, and Dixiecrat presidential candidate in 1948, and eight-term U.S. senator.

Scott aspired to a football career until a religious experience changed his direction. At a 1983 meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, he had an epiphany.

He had already come under the guidance of a white owner of a local Chick-fil-A franchise. Scott acquired many of his ideas by reading Thomas Sowell and other conservatives.

In 1995, he became the first black Republican elected to any South Carolina office (Charleston County Council) since Reconstruction, and in 2008 he became the first black Republican since Reconstruction elected to the state House of Representatives.

His website stresses economics: "Tim has never voted for a tax increase" and "Tim was heavily involved in bringing Boeing to the Charleston area."

This state, like most, practices "entrepreneurial federalism," offering incentives — tax exemptions, low interest loans, etc. — to lure investment. So a gigantic $750 million assembly plant is rising where Boeing will create 3,800 new jobs to build its 787.

Unlike in Everett, Wash., where most Boeing aircraft have been built, the South Carolina workforce will be non-union.

When the Democrats' 2004 presidential nomination contest reached this state, the eventual winner, John Kerry, was excoriating "Benedict Arnold CEOs" — those who locate some operations overseas.

This must have seemed quaint and parochial in a state that is benefiting from the German, Japanese, and French CEOs who gave South Carolina BMW, Fujifilm, and Michelin plants.

Scott's and Haley's candidacies, both focusing on economic issues, are pebbles in an avalanche of evidence that the identity politics of race and ethnicity has become a crashing bore.

That, in turn, is evidence of this: If the question is which state has changed most in the last half-century, the answer might be California. But if the question is which state has changed most for the better, the answer might be South Carolina.

George Will's e-mail address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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