Nikki Haley's Presidential Bid Is an Unappealing Mix of MAGA and RINO
Is she an heir to Trump's throne? Is she a second coming for the pre-Trump Republican establishment? She doesn't even seem to know.
Urging Americans to embrace "a new generation of leadership," former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced her candidacy for president in a campaign ad released online Tuesday. She is the first Republican to officially challenge former President Donald Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination.
Haley, 51, is more than a quarter century younger than Trump and President Joe Biden, so it makes sense to stress her relative youthfulness in a campaign that's likely to represent a long-overdue conversation about whether the country would benefit from having some younger people in charge. And she's piled up an impressive list of accomplishments during a political career that began by dethroning a 30-year incumbent member of the South Carolina state House in 2004. Haley was the first woman and the first Indian American elected as governor of South Carolina, an important and early primary state. She was America's ambassador to the United Nations for two years during the Trump administration. As such, she can arguably lay claim to having more experience across both domestic and foreign policy than possibly any other prospective candidate in the 2024 GOP field.
And yet, despite all the positives in terms of identity, politics, and career experience that would seem to make Haley a serious contender for the White House, her announcement on Tuesday was met by something like a collective shrug.
Take, for example, Sen. Mike Rounds' (R–S.D.) reaction. "Former governors can do a great job as president… I think Nikki is very, very capable," he told CNN. But when asked if he'd support her over Trump, Rounds immediately backed away from the idea. "I would just simply say that we're going to have other people getting into the race," he said, before mentioning another South Carolinian, Sen. Tim Scott, who he'd rather see in the race.
GOP Sen. Mike Rounds on Nikki Haley: "Former governors can do a great job as president. Ronald Reagan was a former governor. I think Nikki is very, very capable." Asked if he'd support her over Trump, "I would simply say we are going to have other people entering the race." pic.twitter.com/OIqJNG4XVP
— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) February 14, 2023
How to explain the lack of enthusiasm for Haley's bid? Perhaps the answer is that she's just come along a decade too late. "Haley would be the frontrunner in a Republican party that no longer exists," writes Sarah Longwell, publisher of The Bulwark and a longtime GOP political consultant.
"While many Republican voters may be moving off Trump the man, the forces that he unleashed within the party—economic populism, isolationist foreign policy, election denialism, and above all, an unapologetic and vulgar focus on fighting culture war issues—remain incredibly popular with GOP voters," writes Longwell.
That's one possible explanation. But the Never Trumpers and the neocons who imagine that Haley would be a GOP primary favorite in the days before Trump are probably deluding themselves at least a little. Trump's rise, after all, was powered by a rejection of that very same Republican establishment by the party's own voters.
Still, there's no doubt that what it means to be a serious Republican presidential contender has changed in the past few years. And until the Republican Party demonstrates an ability to yank itself out of Trump's shadow, every prospective presidential candidate will be judged in part on how they handled the Trump years. That is perhaps somewhat unfair—it automatically centers Trump and forces his challengers to fight for space within his gravitational field. But it's also a more useful way of understanding candidates than judging what they may or may not have been a decade ago, in a political party that effectively no longer exists.
On this point, too, Haley faces some problems. She's not a believable heir to the Trump political movement but has deliberately tacked in that direction anyway.
That decision shows up in both personality and policy. In the announcement video posted Tuesday, Haley made an awkward pitch to the more pugilistic, Trumpian side of the GOP. "I don't put up with bullies. And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you're wearing heels," she said.
Trump has a gift for being faux low-brow in a way that's often funny even when it's obviously fake, but not everyone can pull it off. Most politicians shouldn't even try. Haley ran a state government for eight years and has been an ambassador to the United Nations. She's not literally kicking her political opponents. And if she were, isn't that kind of worse?
Those kinds of mixed signals surround Haley's candidacy. In 2021, Haley said she wouldn't run against Trump if he sought another term in 2024. Now, she's literally the first challenger out of the gate. She stepped away from the Trump administration in 2018 and correctly criticized the former president's handling of the aftermath of the 2020 election, but she's been careful to defend the bulk of the Trump years.
"Most of Mr. Trump's major policies were outstanding and made America stronger, safer, and more prosperous," she wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in February 2021. "I will gladly defend the bulk of the Trump record and his determination to shake up the corrupt status quo in Washington."
When she has broken with Trump, it hasn't always made much sense. She resigned from Boeing's board of directors in 2020 after the company lobbied for a federal bailout that Trump supported. "I cannot support a move to lean on the federal government for a stimulus or bailout that prioritizes our company over others and relies on taxpayers to guarantee our financial position," she wrote in the resignation letter. That's good! But in 2013, as governor, she signed a bill giving Boeing a $120 million subsidy aimed at expanding its South Carolina manufacturing facilities. That's…not so good.
As Reason's Scott Shackford noted earlier this month, she's also fallen into the same populist logical fallacy as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis by voicing support for school choice while calling for bans on what can be taught in some schools, including critical race theory. She's also copied Trump's protectionist economic policies to some extent, advocating for the U.S. to engage in less trade with China.
Haley's predicament, then, is that she's alienated what's left of the pre-Trump Republican establishment by embracing some of the personality and policies of her former boss. But she's been unwilling to fully commit to a Trumpian rebranding in the same way that DeSantis has. That leaves her stuck somewhere in the middle—not another Liz Cheney but a long way from being another Margorie Taylor Greene.
That might not be a terrible spot if there was some unifying principle or tangible reason for her candidacy. So far, she hasn't articulated one.
So Haley is stuck talking about the need for a "new generation of leadership." That's something the country needs, to be sure, but everything else about Haley suggests that as president she'd simply land somewhere between the failed Republican policies that preceded Trump and the failed policies that he enacted.