Increasingly, it seems like Nikki Haley may be the only sane, rational Republican left with any kind of chance to beat Donald Trump in the primaries and caucuses. Yes, Haley’s Comet could be a moonshot, but she could turn out to be the GOP’s last, best hope.
In part, it’s because last week’s debate proved that no other Republican candidate is up to the job. Soft-serve Tim Scott is never going to excite voters. Low-energy Doug Burgum and Asa Hutchinson are toast. Mike Pence, speaking of toast, seems about as fresh as a moldy loaf of white bread (though he did show some sparks at the debate). Ron DeSantis, who was supposed to be the giant killer, seemed like just another dwarf on the stage. Vivek Ramaswamy—no matter how much the press wants to puff him up so they can eventually take him down—is a carny sideshow. He will draw circusgoers for a while, but he just doesn’t have the staying power to make it into the big tent. And Chris Christie is a human wrecking ball. He will never be forgiven by the Republican base (except, perhaps, in New Hampshire) for attacking the party’s dear leader, Kim Don Un.
Nikki Haley, however, seems to be a cut above this riffraff. She has always struck me as someone with great potential, but is uncomfortable and awkward in the straitjacket of the current Republican Party. Just when I think she takes a bold and courageous position (like her stand on taking down a Confederate battle flag), she turns around and genuflects to MAGA-world or she tries to score far-right points on a wedge issue, such as her dubious trans-baiting stance, suggesting that the alarming rate at which teen girls are contemplating suicide is somehow related to the fact that “biological boys are in their locker rooms.”
In the debate, however, she demonstrated why she could be a good president. Leadership means speaking hard truths. She seemed like the adult on the stage. She took the Republican Party and Trump to task for astronomical spending. “The truth is that Biden didn’t do this to us,” she declared. “Our Republicans did this to us too when they passed that $2.2 trillion COVID stimulus bill.”
And she said the most obvious and most important truth. Which is that Trump, given his steamer trunk of baggage, would be the worst possible nominee in the general election. Haley called for “a new generational conservative leader,” and said that “three-quarters of Americans don’t want a rematch between Trump and Biden. And we have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We can’t win an election that way.” (While Haley, like her rivals, continues to remain far behind the former president in the polls, a post-debate survey by The Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight, and Ipsos of would-be GOP voters suggested her showing impressed a good share of those likely to cast ballots in the primaries. “If there’s one candidate who overperformed [among non-Trump voters], it’s Haley,” the Post noted. “She’s taking only about 8% of the non-Trump vote in the national polling average, but nearly double that number say she won the debate.”
While many Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail hold draconian, incoherent, or constantly vacillating positions on abortion, Haley, whether you agree with her or not, stood at her lectern and expressed thoughtful and nuanced opinions on the issue: “Can’t we all agree that we should ban late-term abortions? Can’t we all agree that we should encourage adoptions? Can’t we all agree that doctors and nurses who don’t believe in abortion shouldn’t have to perform them?” And she went further: “Can’t we all agree that contraception should be available? And can’t we all agree that we are not going to put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty if she gets an abortion?”
Yes, she has been anything but clear on reproductive rights. At a town hall in June, she sounded like nothing so much as a Trump candidate for the Supreme Court, resisting the opportunity to say she would not support a six-week ban on terminating a pregnancy. But on this topic, she still sounded more sensible (admittedly, a low bar) than the others on the stage in Milwaukee.
She also displayed her formidable foreign policy chops. She gave Ramaswamy a karate chop about his views on Vladimir Putin and Ukraine. “This guy is a murderer,” she insisted, “and you are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country.… You don’t do that to friends. What you do instead is you have the backs of your friends.… You will make America less safe. You have no foreign policy experience. And it shows.”
Haley, in fact, has the best résumé of the bunch—even compared to Pence and his fallow time as Trump’s shallow vice president. As a former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the United Nations, she has both executive and diplomatic experience. And for a party that seems to have lost its backbone on leadership, integrity, international credibility, and, well, truth itself, Haley has a quartet of superpowers the GOP desperately needs.
In order to ever win the presidency again, much less the popular vote, Republicans need to get out of their demographic cul-de-sac of relying on elderly white men. As a 51-year-old woman of color, Haley hits the trifecta the party needs to send a signal it’s ready to enlarge the tent.
During Haley’s time as South Carolina’s chief executive, she oversaw the expansion of her state’s employment rolls (which increased by a reported 400,000 during her six years in office); governed by tapping into a diverse talent base; and, in 2015, exhibited exceptional poise, stature, and empathy after a white supremacist killed nine Black leaders and worshippers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. She would serve two years as Trump’s UN ambassador (confirmed by a vote of 96 to 4), helping to spearhead American policies and initiatives on North Korea, Russia, Syria, Israel (including the efforts to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem), and Iran (pushing for the decertification of Obama’s nuclear deal with the Islamic republic). Whatever diplomatic kudos were earned by Trump’s six national security advisers and two secretaries of state—not to mention his unofficial Middle East errand boy, Jared Kushner—Haley held her own amid the turnover and tumult.
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
Besides Pence and Christie, each of whom seem like dark horses, at best, for the nomination, Haley can make the case that she actually served dutifully and effectively in the Trump administration—a not insignificant feat. Moreover, she knows where the bodies are buried, or, if they’re not, which ones should be.
GENERAL ELECTION APPEAL
If Haley is eventually able to navigate the minefields and become the GOP nominee, I don’t think there’s any question that—compared to all of the possible Republican candidates—she would have the best shot in a general election against Joe Biden. As a former Trump Cabinet official, she’d pass muster with many voters in MAGA-land. Establishment Republicans would be thrilled. And as a woman with an array of conservative and moderate views (she herself rejects the “moderate” label), she’d have tremendous crossover attraction to suburban women and independent voters—key constituents on the road to the White House.
“The American president needs to have moral clarity,” Haley stressed at the debate. “They need to know the difference between right and wrong. They need to know the difference between good and evil.” It’s a shame that we are at that stage in the life of this democracy, where the litmus test for the American commander in chief is whether they are an ethical human being. But here we are.
Candidate Haley, judging from her response to the Charleston massacre alone, possesses moral clarity. But she has more than that, especially in contrast to her competitive set of sharks, misfits, milquetoasts, and Trump toadies. I would go so far as to say that, given the political contours of these strange times, if you assembled the perfect 2024 Republican general election candidate in a laboratory, she would look a lot like Nikki Haley.