Nikki Haley had been paddling in the shallows of the Republican presidential race for six months, making few waves, when an unnamed senior adviser to President Biden confided to Politico two weeks ago, “If they nominate Nikki Haley, we’re in trouble.” It was an odd admission, given that the former South Carolina governor was polling at around 4 percent nationally. But then Haley last week delivered a strong debate performance, and a new leaked poll from Trump world showed her moving into third place in Iowa and New Hampshire.
So Haley proudly resurrected the Biden aide’s quote in an appearance on Fox News this week. “They know they can’t call me a racist,” said Haley, who, as the daughter of Indian immigrants, describes herself as “minority female.” “They know they can’t call out anything I do because I’m their worst nightmare.”
For Haley, this is a moment to savor. While still a long shot for the nomination, she has emerged as the most plausible conventional Republican in the race. Both Mike Pence and Tim Scott are too passionate in their socially conservative views, notably their strict anti-abortion positions, to appeal to swing voters in the general election. And Chris Christie, for all his belated anti-Trump zeal, is anathema to most voters, with his unfavorable ratings hitting as high as 60 percent in some national polls.
The point is not to lionize Haley, whose timidity in the face of Trump has made a weather vane seem like a model of principled constancy. She criticized Trump when he ran in 2016 but then eagerly accepted his nomination to serve as ambassador to the United Nations, defended him during her tenure, and encouraged voters to reelect him—even after the January 6 insurrection. As Frank Bruni put it in a New York Times column, “Past Haley, present Haley, future Haley: They’re all constructs, all creations, malleable, negotiable, tethered not to dependable principle but to reliable opportunism.”
But Haley—for all her flaws and ideological contortions—serves as a potent reminder that Biden and the Democrats could be vulnerable to a Republican nominee who is not a conspiracy-minded authoritarian with social views lifted from The Handmaid’s Tale While Trump, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy eagerly take right-wing positions that are easy to pillory, Haley is much harder to pigeonhole. There are four notable issues where she has taken politically shrewd positions that could flummox Democrats.
In the 14 months since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, no issue has been as politically potent for the Democrats as abortion rights. Even as Haley declares herself “pro-life,” she is trying to take abortion off the table for the 2024 election. “The reality is,” she told Fox News radio host Guy Benson last week, “you’re not going to have a Republican president who is able to ban abortion any more than you’re going to have a Democrat president who can ban these state laws.”
Haley’s approach to this divisive issue is to downplay her own anti-abortion views and keep stressing the word “consensus.” In typical fashion, she told Benson, “I think we can find consensus on the idea that we should ban late-term abortions.” This is not terrain that the Democrats should be eager to fight on, since the Gallup Poll found that only 22 percent of Americans support abortions in the third trimester.
This is another issue on which Haley has long been squishy. As U.N. ambassador in 2017, she loyally supported Trump’s impetuous withdrawal from the Paris climate accords while simultaneously insisting that climate change “is real.” Even now, Republicans like Ramaswamy insist with a straight face that “climate change is a hoax.”
That level of willful denial in the face of the climate cataclysm all but guarantees that the Republicans will never win the majority support of younger voters. But Haley’s position is far cleverer. As she argued in the Republican debate, “Climate change is real.… If you want to change the environment, we need to start telling China and India that they have to lower their emissions.” Her implicit and potentially politically appealing message is: Why should America play the sucker when China and India are the ones to blame?
When it comes to the budget, it is normally easy for Democrats to ridicule Republicans for their hypocrisy on spending, since the deficit only became a problem for the GOP when Biden was sworn in as president. But Haley, with her background as an accountant, does not fall into that particular trap. In mid-August, at a conservative conference in Atlanta, she lamented, “We are $32 trillion in debt … I’d love to say that Biden did that to us. I’ve always spoken hard truths. Our Republicans did that to us too.”
The kind of austerity that appeals to Haley is economically foolish. But the Democrats should realize that arguing against her economic nostrums would require better argument than loudly shouting, “What about Trump? What about the Bush tax cuts?”
During the GOP debate and afterward, the hawkish Haley has reveled in attacking Ramaswamy for his isolationist naïveté on Russia and China. Haley’s advocacy of continued aid to Ukraine brings with it political risks since an early August CNN poll found that 55 percent of Americans oppose additional support for Ukraine in its battle against Russia.
To the degree that foreign policy will be an issue in 2024, Biden is prepared to ridicule the Republicans as Vladimir Putin’s enablers. And certainly Trump, DeSantis, and Ramaswamy fit this mold. For all the unease about Ukraine, a Gallup Poll this month found that Putin has a rip-roaring 5 percent approval rating among Americans. But Haley, who often invokes Margaret Thatcher, has no intention of going wobbly on Ukraine. If somehow she were to miraculously wrest the nomination from Trump, then aid to Ukraine and support for Taiwan would not be up for debate in the general election against Biden.
If the Republicans were a rational political party, they would quickly grasp that Haley’s policy positions, as well as her persona as an Indian American woman, make her probably the strongest candidate against Biden. So far, all the evidence suggests that the Republicans would rather win the hearts of the far right than win the White House. But if the GOP ever shakes off its cultish devotion to Trump—admittedly, an unlikely “if” in the 2024 campaign—then the Democrats would truly have an electoral fight on their hands.