More experience in executive governmental office. Greater command of global geopolitical issues. Better understanding of state prerogatives in the American federal system. Deeper commitment to local charitable undertakings. Earlier personal involvement in family business. In short: compares favorably with Donald J. Trump’s 2016 profile as a presidential candidate.
Who says Nikki Haley — a onetime member of the South Carolina state legislature, a governor, chief delegate to the United Nations, and, as an Asian American woman, a pathfinder in American political life — can’t compete with Trump for next year’s Republican presidential nomination?
Not her colleagues at the United Nations; they respected her position and perspectives at Turtle Bay. Not the Republican inner circle in her state; they know she knocked off the longest-serving lawmaker in her state in a GOP primary. Not national Republican leaders; they watched her soar from last place to first in the gubernatorial primary that led her to the governor’s mansion atop Arsenal Hill in Columbia.
And not Trump himself, who, when he selected her for the U.N. post shortly after winning the 2016 election, called her “a proven deal-maker,” citing her “track record of bringing people together regardless of background or party affiliation.”
Haley is the first Republican to challenge Trump; she will make her formal entry next week amid the exposed brick and hardwood floors of a Charleston venue called The Shed in a state Trump carried by nearly 12 points in 2020.
That will be an important marker in the 2024 campaign. More than a half-dozen other Republicans are contemplating, if not planning, an effort to win the Republican presidential nomination. Knowing Trump’s inclination for sharklike attacks, none dared be first to jump into the water.
But now that Haley is plunging in, others may follow swiftly; look for former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to be the next to join the campaign. In presidential politics, where the race for funding and ground operatives is vital, to hesitate is to fall behind.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who traveled in October to New Hampshire, site of the first primary, this month will be decamping in Iowa, which holds the first caucus. No one from South Carolina (where the temperature is 70 degrees as I write this) goes to Iowa (temperature at typing time: 7 degrees, wind chill minus 6 degrees) in February without presidential ambitions. (Footnote: It was Gov. Haley who appointed Scott to the Senate in 2013.)
Haley’s tweet last week provided hints about the campaign she will run. “It’s time for a new generation,” she wrote. “It’s time for new leadership. And it’s time to take our country back. America is worth the fight — and we’re just getting started.”
No one steeped in American politics could fail to deconstruct those four sentences.
The “new generation” is an echo of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign. The phrase “new leadership” is a riff off Gary Hart’s 1984 campaign slogan of “new ideas.” The reference to “take our country back” is an allusion to a phrase the Tea Party movement employed in 2009 and that Trump used at a rally in Phoenix in 2015 (“Don’t worry, we’ll take our country back,” he said in a speech about immigration). In fact, he used it repeatedly during his presidency, including in his Jan. 6, 2021, speech urging supporters to march to the Capitol (“Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength and you have to be strong.”).
Haley’s comment about America being “worth the fight” is classic Trump rhetoric, including the second half of that Jan. 6 imprecation (“you have to show strength”). The phrase about “just getting started” is an allusion to a 1970 song by the brother-and-sister music duo the Carpenters (“We’ve Only Just Begun”) whose theme Ronald Reagan appropriated repeatedly, including in a late second-term radio address on education overhaul. It is, moreover, a variation on one of the 40th president’s favorite reprise lines (which he used to soothe Republicans after the party’s catastrophic 1986 midterm performance, when after losing eight Senate seats, he said, “Washington ain’t seen nothing yet”).
Trump and Haley have an unusual relationship. She criticized the Manhattan tycoon for his signature early proposal, calling his notion of banning Muslims from entering the country “un-American.” She endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in the critical 2016 South Carolina primary and then, in a nationally televised GOP response to Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, called for her party to reject the “angriest voices.”
No one, especially Trump, missed the meaning. He countered: “The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley!”
But when she left the U.N. position, Trump said, “She’s done a fantastic job, and we’ve done a fantastic job together.” After the insurrection at the Capitol, she said that Trump had “lost any sort of political viability.” Haley later said she wouldn’t seek the White House if Trump planned a third presidential campaign. When she decided to run anyway, she contacted the former president. Trump said he told her to “go by your heart, if you want to run.” Days later, he said Haley had decided to “follow her heart, not her honor.”
Her positions on abortion (she spoke of “a baby’s right to live, the most basic right there is” at the 2019 Susan B. Anthony List Campaign for Life gala) and taxes (“We will not produce the jobs our people deserve by placing higher tax burdens on our workers and our small businesses,” she said at her 2011 gubernatorial inaugural) are in the sweet spot for modern Republicans.
But her decision to remove the Confederate flag after the 2015 mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston rankled Southern conservatives. Her vigorous support of aid to Ukraine is at odds with contemporary Republican skepticism of American involvement there. Those vulnerabilities in Republican nomination politics, however, may be advantages in a general election — if she gets that far.
There is a long road from her Charleston campaign kickoff to the nomination. The various committees supporting the Trump campaign had more than $81 million at the end of the year. Right now, Haley’s Stand for America PAC has only $2 million. Money is the first primary, and Trump is way ahead.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.