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How Nikki Haley Can Beat Trump

She won’t win the Republican nomination, but by staying in the race she’s lowering Donald Trump’s chances of returning to the White House.

Nikki Haley smiles and puts her hand over her heart after losing the New Hampshire primary in January
Nikki Haley after losing the New Hampshire primary in January

Waging a race against Donald Trump that even Don Quixote might consider not worth the gamble, Nikki Haley gives the impression that, at long last, she has gone full Never Trump. But, in truth, she is nowhere near morphing into Chris Christie with a Southern accent and a you-go-girl political persona. 

Christie, whose campaign died before the New Hampshire primary, excoriated Trump in terms that an MSNBC viewer could easily cheer. In an early December debate, Christie called Trump a “dictator,” a “bully,” and an “angry, bitter man.” During an interview with The New York Times on a visit to Israel in November, the former New Jersey governor denied that Trump was a conscious antisemite. But Christie quickly added that Trump’s “intolerance of everyone” has directly contributed to rising bigotry in America.

Haley’s approach in the final days before Saturday’s South Carolina primary is far more cautious and surgical. 

In a Tuesday speech giving her full-throated justification for staying in the race beyond her home state’s primary, Haley said, “Like most Americans, I have a handful of serious concerns about the former president. But I have countless serious concerns about the current president.” That line alone virtually guarantees that Haley will not magically appear as a surprise guest at the August Democratic convention.

Although the plucky Haley portrays herself as a loyal Republican, her limited—but scorching—attacks on Trump are worth examining in detail. She is appealing to a dwindling band of Reagan Republicans, suburban moderates and up-for-grabs independents. There are probably not enough of these voters to hand Haley a primary victory, but these are constituencies that the Joe Biden campaign will also target in November. Haley, in effect, is offering a crash course in how to woo swing voters who do not automatically assume that Trump is a racist and fascist out to trample the Constitution.  

Some of Haley’s attacks are geared solely to the GOP primaries. An anti-Trump TV spot that aired in mid-February features a narrator direly warning: “What is Trump saying he’ll actually do in office? A 10 percent across-the-board tax increase. More record-breaking debt.” Such fiscally conservative bromides are unlikely to end up in Biden’s fall playbook. The same goes for Haley’s pitch to religious conservatives: On Wednesday, she endorsed a harsh Alabama ruling that effectively banned in vitro fertilization, telling NBC, “Embryos, to me, are babies.” 

One theme that Biden will not be emulating is Haley’s anguished comments that Trump is bankrupting the Republican National Committee. In a CNN interview last week, Haley said, “I don’t want the RNC to become his legal defense fund. I don’t want the RNC to become his piggy bank for his personal court cases.” Impoverishing the GOP for personal gain is the one Trump grift that most Democrats would support. 

John Kennedy in his 1961 Inaugural Address proudly declared, “The torch has been passed to a new generation.” For the past six decades, younger presidential candidates have made similar generational appeals. Announcing a run for president in 1987, the 44-year-old Biden boasted, “Our generation is eager and ready to reclaim its special legacy and redeem the promise of America for ourselves and our children.” Small wonder that Haley, 52, is stressing an analogous, albeit more vicious, age-based case against both Trump and Biden. 

The Haley campaign released early this month a video called, “Grumpy Old Men Say What?” The two-and-a-half-minute blooper reel featured both Biden and Trump uttering incoherent sentences that no high school English teacher could ever diagram. Then Haley made a surprise cameo on Saturday Night Live posing as a random South Carolina voter who said to Trump (impersonated by James Austin Jackson), “Are you doing OK, Donald? You might need a mental competency test.”

Jabs like this are a reminder that if the Republican Party were not afflicted with a Trumpian death wish, it would see in Haley a potential nominee primed to challenge the 81-year-old Biden over his biggest vulnerability: his age. 

Haley has proven effective in breathing new life into Trump vulnerabilities that date from the start of his political career. Questing for an issue that might have traction in South Carolina with its large community of veterans, Haley has resurrected Trump’s many dismissive comments about military sacrifice dating back to his belittling John McCain for being captured as a Vietnam POW. At a February 10 rally, Trump made a sneering comment about the one-year deployment of her husband, Michael Haley, to Africa with the National Guard. That prompted the former South Carolina governor to go ballistic in a Fox News interview: “The problem with Trump is he’s never been anywhere near a uniform. He apparently had some sort of foot reason that he says he couldn’t do that, but the reality is, the closest he’s come to harm’s way is a golf ball hitting him on a golf cart.”

Retired General Don Bolduc, a right-wing Haley supporter who lost a 2022 Senate race in New Hampshire, said at a press conference sponsored by the campaign, “Donald Trump sought deferments for bone spurs. Well, I went through Ranger School with bone spurs.”

Just as reporters were hyperventilating over the recent discovery that Biden was not a young man, Trump went out of his way to remind the world that he remains Vladimir Putin’s puppet. Not only did Trump encourage Russia to invade NATO countries not spending enough on defense, but he also then worked overtime to make offensive comments after the death of courageous dissident Alexei Navalny.

Haley, who has been stalwart in her support of Ukraine, unlike most Republicans who quested after the presidential nomination, like Ron DeSantis issued a scorching statement, “Donald Trump continues to side with Vladimir Putin—a man who kills his political opponents, holds American journalists hostage, and has never hidden his desire to destroy America.” 

Given the feckless Republican attitude toward Ukraine and Putin, it is important to remember that the GOP appeasers are on the wrong side of public opinion. A late-January poll by the Pew Research Center found that 69 percent of Republicans and GOP leaners believe that the war in Ukraine is important for U.S. interests. That means that more than two-thirds of Republicans disagree with Trump if they are asked a question without his name attached. And a Pew poll last year found that 91 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Russia.

Haley has been adept at using Russia as a way to speak to Trump’s greatest political vulnerability: his mental instability. “It’s not normal to insult our military heroes and veterans,” she said in Tuesday’s campaign speech. “It’s not normal to spend fifty million dollars in campaign donations on personal court cases. It’s not normal to threaten the people who back your opponent. And it’s not normal to call on Russia to invade NATO countries. Donald Trump has done all that and more in just the last month.” 

In the same speech justifying her determination to press on despite … well … everything, Haley also spoke to the GOP’s timorous refusal to confront Trump. As she put it, “Many of the same politicians who now publicly embrace Trump privately dread him. They know what a disaster he’s been and will continue to be for our party. They’re just too afraid to say it out loud.” 

Haley—for all her conservative views and personal blind spots—deserves major credit for her potentially career-ending determination to tell the truth about Trump. With her emphasis on Trump’s disdain for personal sacrifice, his fanboy embrace of Putin, and his unhinged mental state, Haley is also reminding the Biden campaign that they don’t just need fresh issues to portray Trump as unfit for office.