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Haley’s Gambit
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Haley’s Gambit

The uses of a longshot candidacy.

Nikki Haley speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition annual leadership meeting in Las Vegas. (Photo by David Becker for the Washington Post)

The task of moving the Republican Party past Donald Trump will soon get harder. Maybe by a little, possibly by a lot.

Regular readers know that I think Nikki Haley fills a unique niche in the coming presidential primary as the only candidate who won’t have enough support to win but might have enough support to spoil the chances of the most formidable Trump alternative, Ron DeSantis. As such, her campaign is more likely to produce a third Trump nomination than a first Haley nomination and everyone involved knows it. One Trump operative put it bluntly in December when he said, “Basically, we’re praying Nikki Haley runs.” Trump himself admitted in an interview on Thursday that he didn’t try to dissuade her from getting in.

So she’s in, or will be as of February 15. And given the odds against her, she’s almost certainly running to be someone’s running mate, not the nominee herself.

She reminds me of Ted Cruz both in how conniving she is in her ambition and how transparent her machinations tend to be. When Cruz ran for president in 2016, he spent the first six months of the campaign applauding Trump despite the fact that Trump was every inch the RINO squish on policy that Mr. Constitutional Conservative normally disdains. Cruz’s strategy was as obvious as it was cynical: He assumed Trump would collapse once Republican voters sniffed out his squishiness and that MAGA devotees would then stampede toward the most Trump-friendly populist still left in the field—namely, Ted Cruz.

He’ll be equally conniving in how he approaches 2024. Cruz won’t run for president this time, knowing that he stands no chance of outpolling both Trump and DeSantis. Instead, I suspect, he’ll become a surrogate for Trump and begin attacking DeSantis in media appearances. His dream of inheriting the MAGA base never died, per his endless grotesque attempts to ingratiate himself to Trump fans since 2016; my guess is that he’s come to view himself as an analog to Richard Nixon, an unlikable yet serious contender who lost relevance temporarily but will roar back to viability down the road at a moment when his party finds itself in need of a nominee. Ted plays the long game now, and the long game requires him to hope that the aging king in need of an heir apparent prevails over a young upstart who might dominate the party for the next eight years.

But I digress.

Like Cruz, Haley has also been lavishly conniving in her relationship with Trump. And like Cruz, she has no chance of defeating Trump and DeSantis in a primary. Or almost no chance: She may fantasize about a three-way race in which she consolidates centrist Republicans and defeats the two populists with 40 percent of the vote. Or she may idly hope that DeSantis stumbles on the trail, leaving Republican voters who are panicked about a third Trump nomination to turn to her. But in all probability, Haley is clear-eyed about her path to national power. She’s held no public office of any kind for four years and is blocked from running for Senate in her home state of South Carolina by two Republican incumbents who are in no hurry to retire. She’ll be old news by 2028. (That’s one way in which she and Cruz, an incumbent senator, differ.) Her only chance at the presidency is the vice presidency.

So that’s what she’s running for, hoping to demonstrate strength among suburbanites in the primary knowing how badly her party wants to claw back some of the educated voters it ceded to Democrats during the Trump era. If she can do that then she’ll be a top-tier VP contender no matter who the GOP nominee is, but especially so if it’s Trump. DeSantis might not need much help appealing to the suburbs, after all. Trump will. A lot.

The endgame of Haley 2024, in other words, is plainly a Trump/Haley ticket. And because it is, I have a sinking feeling that she’ll become an attack dog for Trump against DeSantis before the campaign is over. (Unless DeSantis leaps out to a polling lead early and holds it, that is, which will give her pause.) Her candidacy will end in tears for Dispatch readers, in all likelihood.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Haley running will benefit the anti-Trump cause in the end. A little? Kind of?

Let’s see if I can talk myself into believing this.

Haley will force the Republican base to reckon with Trump’s age.

Ask a rank-and-file conservative how old they think Trump is and they may or may not have a reasonable guess. But one thing they’d all tell you, I expect, is that he’s considerably younger than our current president, Grandpa Simpson.

I don’t fault them for thinking that. Think of Joe Biden in his current state and the words that pop to mind are, to borrow a phrase, “low energy.” Think of Trump and you’re apt to picture him at a rally bellowing for an hour and a half about Chy-nah or the wall or executing drug dealers, yadda yadda, while thousands of fanatics cheer and laugh. High energy.

That image is outdated, though. Trump’s energy may not be as low as Biden’s but it’s not what it was, starting with his lackluster announcement speech in November. Nor is he considerably younger than President Simpson. He’ll be 78 on Inauguration Day 2025, the same age Biden was on Inauguration Day 2021.

Notably, Haley has already begun dancing around the subject of Trump’s age in her chatter about 2024. She hasn’t attacked him explicitly but her early pitch to Fox News viewers has emphasized that it’s time for a “new generation” to lead. At first blush that’s a knock on Biden’s age, not Trump’s, but as the campaign develops she’s destined to ask Republican voters to confront the fact that their favorite ex-president will also be pushing 80 if he lands back in the White House.

On Thursday, without explanation, Haley posted a link to an old news story about her wanting aging politicians to take cognitive tests.

An NBC reporter noticed that that tweet just so happened to go live minutes after Trump had lightly criticized her during a radio interview with Hugh Hewitt. Remind me: Who is it who’s known to babble inanely about how proud he is that he was able to identify a “person, woman, man, camera, TV” on a cognitive test? It’s not Joe Biden, is it?

Perhaps that’ll come up during this year’s primary campaign.

It makes sense that age would be Haley’s first (and maybe main) line of attack against Trump since it’s not personal. If she calls him a bad president or a conspiratorial crank or a coup-plotting menace to democracy, she’ll offend him and his voters and probably fumble away her chance to be his running mate. She needs to draw a contrast that favors her without implying that he’s uniquely unfit for office. “You’re great, but you’re too old” is one way to do it.

From an anti-Trumper’s perspective, the nice thing about Haley making an issue of Trump’s age is that doing so also benefits the only guy in the race who stands a real chance to beat him. Haley just turned 51; Ron DeSantis won’t turn 45 until September. If she convinces some Republican voters that they need a new generation of leaders, arguably that helps him even more than it does her. Either way, it hurts Trump.

Haley’s early lines of attack on Trump will help other candidates refine their approach.

When Haley enters the race on February 15, she’ll create a dynamic that his 2016 rivals dreamed of—a one-on-one race with Donald Trump.

A one-on-one with Trump now differs wildly from a one-on-one with Trump then. At the time he was a not-very-conservative game-show host about whom many Republicans had reservations. Now he’s the twice-nominated, once-elected leader of a right-wing personality cult. A head-to-head race between Trump and Haley seven years ago might have been competitive. A head-to-head between them now would be ugly.

But a head-to-head, although temporary, at least has the virtue of forcing Haley to focus on Trump’s foibles until the field expands. And DeSantis and other challengers may profit strategically from seeing how she fares in trying out lines of attack.

For instance, Haley might claim that she has special insight into how the Trump administration operated because she served for two years as a member of its Cabinet. “Take it from an insider: It did not run as smoothly and effectively as it should have to advance conservatives’ priorities,” she might say. Again, she’ll need to be careful with her phrasing so as not to alienate Trump to the point that he rules her out for VP, but there’s probably a rhetorical line she can walk to leave it ambiguous as to whether she’s calling him incompetent or merely those who served him.

If her polls rise as she bears down on the point that Trump’s team didn’t perform up to expectations, that’ll be a clue to fellow administration veterans Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo that they should make that point as well. And if suddenly a number of candidates are making it, maybe Republican voters will end up wondering if DeSantis wouldn’t be more effective as president than Trump would.

Or consider Ukraine. Haley is a traditional Republican hawk and therefore likely to take a pro-Ukrainian position as a candidate. As ambassador to the United Nations, she antagonized Russia so relentlessly that Trump was heard to yell at the television when one of her speeches criticizing Moscow would air. The disjunction between a Putin-friendly president and his anti-Putin diplomat was so sharp that the Trump White House and Haley once ended up in a public feud over whether the administration supported sanctions on Russia or not.

A political weathervane like her is likely to temper her antipathy to Russia in a national Republican primary, but I bet she’ll still be conspicuously more supportive of Ukraine than the populists in the field are. If Haley gains ground in polling by doing so—there are still plenty of hawks in the GOP, remember—then she may end up forcing Trump, DeSantis, and the rest to take a harder line on Russia. The same logic applies to when she’s inevitably asked about removing the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s statehouse grounds in 2015 following the racist massacre at a historically black church in Charleston. Haley will defend that decision (I think?). If center-right Republicans shift toward her as a result, it may scare some of the populists in the field away from race-baiting on the stump.

She could have a moderating effect on a host of issues, from the vaccines to candor about Trump’s electability after the GOP’s disappointing midterms. “Haley’s too cynical and ambitious to take bold stands that’ll anger populists,” you might counter, and I’m hard-pressed to disagree. But if I’m right that she’s running for vice president, not president, then it’s actually in her interest to show off her moderate credentials. Either Trump or DeSantis as nominee will be looking for a running mate who’ll reassure swing voters that the man at the top isn’t as radically right-wing as he’s cracked up to be. A young nonwhite woman who tacks away from the base and toward the center fits that bill.

There are worse fates this party could suffer at this stage of its civic degeneration than to have someone like that in front of the cameras every day as a declared presidential candidate making the case for mainstream conservatism.

Haley will help normalize the idea that the primary isn’t a coronation.

The first step to convincing Republican voters that they don’t owe Trump a third nomination is having others step up and offer themselves as alternatives. Whatever you may think of Haley, she’s willing to be the first person in her party to formally declare that the GOP can do better than Donald Trump in 2024.

That ain’t nothing. One reason Trump announced his own candidacy so early was to feed the sense among his fans that it would be “disloyal” for other Republicans to challenge him once he entered the race. He used that exact word, in fact, to describe the affront he feels at the prospect of DeSantis jumping in: “Ron would have not been governor if it wasn’t for me. So, when I hear he might run, I consider that very disloyal.” It’s quintessential Trump to believe that Republicans owe loyalty to him personally, not to the party or to the country.

Anti-Trumpers should want the primary to become a one-on-one race eventually, before voting begins, in order to consolidate the Not Trump vote behind a single candidate. But if there’s any advantage to having a big field, it’s that a big field drives home to primary voters that they have options. They don’t need to stick with the same old demagogue as a sort of political default; they’re free to choose a candidate who by dint of political acumen and electability is best able to advance conservative priorities.

By entering the race, Haley is tacitly announcing that the next primary is a competition, not a coronation. And by volunteering to become the first candidate to do so, she’s making it that much less “disloyal” for DeSantis, Pence, Pompeo, and the rest to follow suit later. The sooner Republican voters are conditioned psychologically to view Trump’s victory as less than a fait accompli, the less likely it is to become a fait accompli.

Another thing. The virtue of entering the race early, months before DeSantis is expected to get in, is that it gives Haley a chance to establish herself as the One True Alternative to Trump. That incentivizes her to draw a contrast with him, albeit tactfully to preserve her vice presidential ambitions. If she entertains even a faint hope of winning the nomination—and, being an ambitious and narcissistic politician, she almost certainly does—then she’ll want to seize the opportunity to draw Trump’s attention away from DeSantis, where it’s presently focused

The sooner she lands on his radar and gets him to engage in a war of words, the more she stands to benefit from him “elevating” her by treating her as an opponent formidable enough to warrant replying to. And the more aggressive she is, the more it may embolden candidates who haven’t entered the race yet to be aggressive when they do.

If she gives it her best shot and is still polling at 3 percent come summer, that too might have benefits. Other no-shot candidates like Pompeo who could siphon off votes from a plausible Trump alternative like DeSantis might hold back to see how Haley fares early on; if she struggles, Pompeo may conclude that there’s no market for anyone beside Trump or DeSantis after all and opt to pass on running. That would facilitate consolidation of the anti-Trump vote. So long as Haley doesn’t linger as a candidate if and when it becomes clear that she’s unviable, having her in the race firing arrows at the former guy is more of a benefit for Never Trumpers than a liability, I think.

All we need to do now is convince her that she should focus her attacks on Trump for the good of the country instead of focusing them on DeSantis for the good of her vice presidential ambitions. Piece of cake.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.