A sane, rational Republican

by Steven Roberts

“Why Nikki Haley Scares the Biden Campaign,” headlines the New Republic. Vanity Fair asks: “Nikki Haley: Is She the Republicans’ Last, Best Hope for 2024?”

Political analyst Mark McKinnon answers that question: “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.”

Haley — the former governor of South Carolina and United Nations ambassador under Trump — remains a huge long shot. In the latest average of national polls, 53.6% of Republican voters prefer Trump as their party’s nominee, while Haley trails in fourth place with only 6% support. But if Republicans ever do break Trump’s grip on the party, and sanity and rationality somehow prevail, Haley could give Biden his strongest test.

All of Trump’s rivals are struggling mightily with the same problem: How do they separate themselves from the former president; how do they shape their own identity without angering Trump and his ardent allies? That’s a very difficult and delicate line to walk, and few have done it successfully.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has futilely tried to outflank Trump on the right, criticizing him for not firing Dr. Anthony Fauci during the pandemic and wavering on abortion. Mike Pence has contorted himself into a pretzel, praising the record of the “Trump-Pence administration” while denouncing the ex-president’s inflammatory actions on Jan. 6. Vivek Ramaswamy calls Trump the “best president of the 21st century” and offers only one limp reason to abandon his hero — at 38, he’s half Trump’s age.

Haley has not really disagreed with Trump on policy. Her pitch is more personal: I’m steady where he’s erratic. I seek consensus while he stokes divisions. I’m a 51-year-old woman of color, and he’s a 77-year-old white man. I can win, and he can’t.

Think of those eight candidates on that debate stage a few weeks ago: seven guys in dark suits and red ties, and one woman in a bright white outfit. A woman who emphasizes her gender and loves to quote Margaret Thatcher on the virtues of being a woman: “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”

That adage has the ring of truth, and many of the female voters in the suburbs of Milwaukee and Phoenix and Atlanta who will decide the next election know that. Nor does Haley flinch from emphasizing her race or origin, often describing herself as a “brown girl” and adding, “I am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants.” A party that lost 57% of women and 71% of nonwhites in 2020 should be paying attention.

She is also selling good sense and a healthy dose of reality. She admitted at the debate that Republicans under Trump added $8 trillion to the national debt, and fiscal irresponsibility was not just a Democratic problem. She’s equally candid about abortion, saying that fellow Republicans who favor a national ban are misleading people and ignoring political facts. And she combines her candor with compassion, insisting that while she remains staunchly “pro-life,” women who seek abortions should not be “demonized.”

As governor, she showed both political skill and courage, deftly finding a way to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol after a white racist killed nine parishioners at a Black church in Charleston. Joel Lourie, a former Democratic state senator, told The New York Times that he had been a harsh critic of the governor until she “rose to the occasion” after the murders. “She is as tactical, talented and ambitious of a politician you will ever meet,” he said.

During her tenure at the U.N., she burnished her foreign policy credentials and built a reputation as a careful and effective diplomat. When she resigned in 2018, The New York Times editorial page praised Haley as “that rarest of Trump appointees: one who can exit the administration with her dignity largely intact.”

Her penchant for realism extends to Trump and his chances for a second term. She called him the “most disliked” politician in America, but notice she does not say, “I dislike him.” Her message is typically practical: He can’t win. So get real.

Haley has plenty of flaws. She can come across as too clever, too eager to please, too lacking in principles. She won’t, for example, condemn Trump’s endless and invidious lies about the 2020 election. Still, if the Republicans are smart enough to nominate her, the Democrats could be in big trouble.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.