Politics

What’s Nikki Haley’s Endgame?

Nikki Haley wavs at supporters while wearing a white jacket with a U.S. flag pin.
Nikki Haley at an event launching her candidacy for the presidency on Wednesday in Charleston, South Carolina. Win McNamee/Getty Images

When Ed Kilgore found out that Nikki Haley was planning to run for president, he wasn’t exactly surprised. Kilgore is a political columnist for New York magazine, and he’s been keeping tabs on Haley’s career for a while. “Anybody who’s followed her career knows that she’s shown every indication of the affliction by which politicians look in the mirror and see a future president of the United States,” he said.

Haley’s only the second person to declare her intent to run in 2024. The other one, of course, is Donald Trump. Haley achieved a national profile when she served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. Now, she’s the first one to challenge him for the Republican nomination. To announce her candidacy, Haley released a video making her first presidential pitch to the country. Kilgore wasn’t too impressed.

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“It’s sort of the nonwhite person who offers moral authority in absolving white conservatives of any implications of racism. There’s nothing that white conservatives love more than being reassured that they’re not racist by nonwhite voices,” he said. “And that’s what Haley is taking advantage of.”

According to Kilgore, Haley’s biggest problem is that she can’t seem to articulate why she should be the next commander in chief. She’s got no catchy slogan, no major endorsement, no particularly remarkable achievements to point to. “She’s actually a pretty well-known national Republican figure. Yet she’s mired in the low single digits in every poll that shows her going up against Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis. So I’m not very impressed at how she seems to be proceeding at this point.”

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On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Kilgore about how Nikki Haley wants to take on Donald Trump—and how even though it’s February 2023, she might already be falling behind. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary C. Curtis: Can you introduce our listeners to the Nikki Haley story, starting with her early life in South Carolina?

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Ed Kilgore: She grew up in South Carolina, the child of Indian immigrants who were actually Sikhs. She followed the Sikh religion until well into her adulthood, when she converted to Methodism. And as a fairly young woman, she had a couple of business ventures. She was elected to the state Legislature from a Columbia suburb and very quickly identified herself with the hard-core right-wing portion of the South Carolina party, but one that thought of itself as modern and free of the kind of racism that it afflicted there for a long time.

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So she was sort of a reform conservative figure in South Carolina. In 2010 when she ran for governor as very much a long shot, she either was afflicted by or got lucky because of—depending on how you look at it—two different men who made apparently baseless accusations of sexual infidelity on her part, that they had had flings with her. They never supplied any concrete evidence. And that naturally made Nikki Haley a sympathetic figure to a lot of voters who had never heard of her. That also made her a great object of affection from Sarah Palin, who dubbed her a “mama grizzly” and came in to South Carolina and campaigned, probably at the peak of Palin’s popularity. And so at a pretty young age, she got the launch she needed and became governor of this very Republican state.

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I remember that race, and members of her own party did subject her to quite a bit of racist abuse as well. What kind of platform did she run on and what were her political priorities? Did she make them clear?

Her message—and again, this nicely meshed with the alleged scandals and efforts to smear her as a woman—was that she was running against the good ol’ boys of the South Carolina Republican establishment. And in South Carolina, that doesn’t just mean old men. It also means people that really were old Dixiecrats that migrated out of the Democratic Party to the Republican Party for convenience and brought a lot of their racist baggage along with them. Like a lot of other Southern states, there was a modern Republican movement—they called themselves at the time “reform conservatives”—who wanted really hard-core right-wing fiscal and economic policies but without the racism. And she was a perfect profile for that, not just because of her message, but because of her identity. And sure enough, she did beat the good ol’ boys.

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It’s interesting that the thing probably many national folks know her for was that stand taking down the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds after the massacre in 2015. We all remember in Mother Emanuel, where nine African Americans were shot and killed, including a legislatorClementa Pinckneyand a reverend. What do you make of that and what folks perceived and what the reality was?

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She hit all the right notes at the time. There’s no way I could criticize her reaction, her pretty much heartfelt sympathy for what happened, her efforts to unite Black and white South Carolinians in mourning, what happened in Charleston.

But she got adulatory national press for that gesture. And I might add, it was a good 20 years after a previous Republican governor of South Carolina tried to do the same thing and really got into political trouble for it. I would argue that by the time Nikki Haley took down the flag, it was pretty much noncontroversial, which showed some excellent timing on her part. But I think she got a little bit too much credit for being something that she’s not, which is some sort of progressive or even moderate.

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I find it very interesting that she does not mention that in her announcement video. There are images of the days after the massacre, but no reference to her taking down the Confederate flag from the Statehouse. She has subsequently, by the way, said that Dylann Roof, the murderer in Charleston, hijacked the Confederate flag, which was basically suggesting that it was a perfectly acceptable, noble symbol before he hijacked it in his murderous rage. So I’m not quite sure if she’s soft-pedaling that to placate neo-Confederates in the Republican Party or what.

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She also made a pretty big show of not supporting Trump in 2016 because of his rhetoric. And she tied the rhetoric to the violence like Charleston. But in 2017, she flip-flopped and joined his administration as United States ambassador to the U.N. So why the change of heart and what was her tenure there like?

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She’s hardly alone among Republicans in moving all over the place in her relationship with Donald J. Trump. Her senior U.S. senator, Lindsey Graham, is dancing like Arthur Murray, going back and forth on Trump for years. So I don’t know that she’s distinguished herself in duplicity on the question of trial, but she has moved around an awful lot. She said harsh, harsh things about him in 2016, but then supported his general election campaign. She accepted a position in this administration but seemed to be whispering to media that she wasn’t really his person.

She was appointed U.N. ambassador, checked that all-important foreign policy box, and—this really did impress me at the time—managed to vaguely convey the sense that she was independent of Donald Trump in terms of what she said and did at the U.N. without ever really criticizing him, either. So she developed this reputation as an independent figure who wasn’t opposed to Donald Trump but certainly wasn’t his creature.

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All that changed on Jan. 6 … sort of. At the RNC the day after the insurrection, Haley told her fellow Republicans that Trump’s “actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history.” That level of conviction didn’t last long, though.

After Jan. 6, she said some very negative things about Trump, said he had disqualified himself, frankly, from further national leadership. Then, not too long after that, she backtracked and said, in fact, if he ran for president in 2024, she would support him. Obviously that’s not happening. Her constituency in the Republican Party, if she’s going to succeed in a presidential campaign, is going to be among people who are tired of Trump, whether they liked him or not or supported him or not in the past.

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Much of Haley’s career is built on her ability to play both sides—on the issues, on Trump, on pretty much everything. But that won’t be as easy in a presidential campaign.

If she’s serious about running for president, she’s going to be spending a lot of time at Pizza Ranches in Iowa very soon, where regular Republican voters are going to ask her a lot of questions about who she is, what she’s done, what she wants to do. And it’s pretty serious scrutiny. To the extent that maybe she has benefited from some ambivalence about what she stands for, and from—frankly—unearned positive media attention, that could wear off pretty quickly in a presidential campaign.

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Do you think her announcement is amounting to maybe hopes that folks are finally casting Trump aside, both voters and the party?

I think that’s the calculation. The problem is that’s also the calculation of Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, Mike Pompeo; Lord knows who is going to wind up in this race. And all of them not named Donald Trump are going to be calculating that Republicans are tired of Donald Trump. Why Nikki Haley, though, as opposed to some of these other candidates—particularly DeSantis, who started way, way, way ahead of her early in the going?

She is from an early state, South Carolina, which votes third in the Republican presidential nominating contest. Donald Trump had an event there recently where he locked up really about half the well-known politicians in the state, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, the current governor, the current lieutenant governor, the state treasurer, three members of the U.S. House. So, she’s got some catching up to do in her home state. And then, Ron DeSantis will clearly be strong there, just like he is everywhere else at the moment. If she loses her home state, her presidential campaign is done.

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I want to talk a little bit about her relationship with Trump. He usually goes harshly after someone who has criticized him so much in such stark condemnation as she did when it came to Jan. 6. But he really hasn’t come out yet. Does he see her as real competition?

Frankly, Trump’s public attitude toward her can only be described as condescending. It’s going to be interesting how he talks about Haley. But his general posture right now is that he doesn’t take her seriously enough to go after her the way he normally does his political rivals. And who knows? In any given moment, Donald Trump can erupt, and he may give her a nasty nickname or go after her personally. Who knows? The problem for Nikki Haley is that’s not within her control. So if she’s going to define her relationship with Donald Trump in a way that improves her prospects, she’s got to get on it right now and not just wait around to see what he’s going to do.

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The open question is exactly what shape Haley’s ambitions will take if being president isn’t on the table. Some commentators have already begun positioning her as a possible vice presidential candidate on Trump’s ticket.

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Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, she does want to be vice president and Trump wins the nomination and she’s on his list. (There have been reports already that Trump is maybe exclusively considering women as a running mate for all kinds of obvious reasons.) I do think that if she winds up in that position, she’s not going to have the independence from Trump that she implied that she had as a member of his administration. The perpetual role model for a Trump vice president is Mike Pence prior to Jan. 6, the craven toadying to the president, with his big shoulders, as Mike Pence said about a thousand times. The bigger question about the vice presidency is whether Haley really wants to do that. And, of course, there’s also the very strong possibility that the nominee is not going to be Donald Trump. It’s going to be Ron DeSantis.

She’s 51 years old, which is pretty young in terms of contemporary presidential expectations. She’s basically a quarter-century younger than Donald Trump. She doesn’t have to run for president right now, which is part of the reason I wonder why she’s doing it right now. But nobody really knows what the post-Trump Republican Party is going to look like. It’s probably going to be a little Trumpier than she’s shown herself to be so far. And there’s competition. So maybe she is the future of the Republican Party, but it may be a really distant future at this point.

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