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Haley Prompts Ryan to Take Sides in the Fight for GOP's Soul

UNITED STATES - September 2: South Carolina Gov. Nikki R.  Haley's State of the Union address drew praise from Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

The passions of the Republican civil war that surfaced because of Gov. Nikki R. Haley’s comments Tuesday night have been trumped by something that for Congress might be even more important:  

Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who won the House gavel last fall as the consensus choice of both the combative insurgent conservatives and the cooler-headed establishment mainstream, left no doubt which side he stands with now.  

“The vision she outlined for our country was inclusive and optimistic, and perhaps most important, it was grounded in reality,” Ryan said in praising the South Carolina governor’s response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, which was distinguished by her minimally veiled chastising of GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump. “This is someone who’s done the tough work of governing. I think that showed in her remarks, and I commend her on a job well done.”  

The Wisconsinite’s comments did more than stick up for Haley, who spent Wednesday enduring a wave of blistering criticism from the far right in the party. His choice of words also drew an obvious set of contrasts between the speaker’s vision of a proper leader for the party and Trump, the bombastic billionaire businessman who’s never worked in government but has so far had remarkable success with a campaign short on factual accuracy, long on pessimism about the state of the nation and emphatic about excluding immigrants and Muslims.  

Ryan’s reaction could also be fairly be interpreted as a brush back pitch to the rhetorically combustible and strategically confrontational members of the Freedom Caucus, the one-sixth of the House Republican Conference who also embody “the siren call of the angriest voices” Haley warned against. After pushing John A. Boehner out last fall, the group’s blessing was essential to Ryan’s ascent. But already some of its members are sounding impatient with the new speaker. Their plans for a new round of legislative confrontation loom as a flash point during this week’s congressional GOP retreat in Baltimore.  

As the senior elected Republicans in Washington, Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were responsible for deciding who would deliver the party’s principal nationally televised reaction Tuesday night. By selecting the 43-year-old Indian-American governor, their most obvious hope was to begin the election year by showcasing a fiscally and culturally conservative with overt potential to win over women, minorities and younger voters.  

(Asked if the senator shared the speaker’s view of Haley’s presentation, spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier said McConnell’s “glowing” assessment of her was unchanged.)  

At a news conference Wednesday, Haley said the text was entirely her own, without any input from Capitol Hill, and that neither Ryan nor McConnell had asked her to modify a speech that took three different jabs at Trump in less than 10 minutes. She confirmed the real estate mogul was the main target of her critique, although she said other unspecified presidential candidates had said things she viewed as disagreeable.  

“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation,” Haley said during Tuesday's speech.  

“Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference,” she added. “That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying, and that can make a world of difference.”  

The governor also offered advice aimed as much to her party’s White House aspirants as to its congressional players.  

“While Democrats in Washington bear much responsibility for the problems facing America today, they do not bear it alone,” she said Tuesday. “There is more than enough blame to go around. We as Republicans need to own that truth. We need to recognize our contributions to the erosion of the public trust in America’s leadership. We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken.”  

That concession effectively matched the one from Obama, who admitted to Congress he’d not fulfilled his 2008 campaign promise to end “the rancor and suspicion between the parties. And on Wednesday, West Wing officials applauded Haley’s vision about the problems with the political system. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough even called her words “admirable.”  

Such praise only amplified the displeasure of conservative hard-liners about the final GOP response to am Obama State of the Union. The tweet that summed that circular logic of the situation most succinctly came from take-no-prisoners commentator Ann Coulter: “Trump should deport Nikki Haley.”  

And the governor’s smiling response? “There are those angry voices I’m talking about.”  

Contact Hawkings at DavidHawkings@rollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @davidhawkings.  

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