What Nikki Haley isn't saying about Trump
She's sharpened her attacks. But it's not nearly enough.
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Nikki Haley remains in the Republican primary race despite two straight losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. While no one is particularly bullish about her chances to actually win the nomination, it’s objectively a good thing for Democrats that she’s still taking the fight to Donald Trump.
If she’d dropped out after New Hampshire, she’d likely have become just another seemingly “normal” Republican shamelessly propping up Trump (see, if you must, Tim Scott). Staying in the race denies Trump a quick coronation and non-stop grovel fest from Republicans. He can’t transition to a general election campaign, and her continued presence — what he sees as willful defiance — clearly rattles him.
Haley has sharpened her attacks against Trump in the lead-up to the South Carolina primary on February 24. She needs to have a strong showing to justify staying in the race through Super Tuesday, and her closing arguments have been surprisingly strong. She’s honed in on many of Trump’s core weaknesses (not easy, considering there are so many). She’s described him as “unhinged,” “insecure,” called out his bromances with dictators, and highlighted his weakness among independent voters.
These attacks are damaging, especially coming from a Republican. Yet Haley is avoiding some obvious body blows, and this point there’s no reason for her to hold back.
Trump is an abusive creep and Haley should say so
When a jury ordered Trump to pay $83.3 million in damages to E. Jean Carroll, who Trump was found liable for sexually assaulting and repeatedly defaming, Haley posted on social media: “Donald Trump wants to be the presumptive Republican nominee and we’re talking about $83 million in damages. We’re not talking about fixing the border. We’re not talking about tackling inflation. America can do better than Donald Trump and Joe Biden.”
What’s weird is Haley’s suggestion that she’d rather not discuss Trump’s abusive and defamatory behavior, which most political candidates would consider a gift. Sure, she could attack Trump on two issues (the border, the economy) where he’s beaten her in recent exit polls or she could remind voters that a jury found him liable for sexual assault. Haley doesn’t even use the word “rape,” which she can legally do. She’s claimed that trans women participating in women’s sports is somehow “one of the most important women’s rights issues of our time,” but she doesn’t want to talk about Trump’s history of sexual abuse?
Even worse, during her appearance last weekend on CNN, Haley went as far as to defend Trump’s treatment of women, saying of her time working in the Trump administration, "I challenged him a lot, and he actually handled it very well and was very respectful."
Haley simply refuses to call out Trump for being an abusive creep. On the January 28 edition of Meet the Press, she said she “absolutely trust(s) the jury” that smacked Trump with $83.3 million in damages but thinks it’s “up to the voters to determine what’s disqualifying.” She did argue that he should “step away” because the court cases are simply too “distracting,” but she refused to take the apparently controversial position that a man found liable for sexual abuse is unfit to serve as president.
The latest verdict against Trump offered Haley the perfect exit ramp from her prior commitment to support him as the nominee. Instead, when pressed by Meet the Press host Kristen Welker, she still wouldn’t rule out endorsing Trump, who she’s said is “totally unhinged” and in “decline.”
Why won’t she go for the jugular?
… So you’re telling me there’s a chance?
Haley is running for the Republican nomination, of course, and Republicans still overwhelmingly support Trump. Her main political argument against him is that his cult-like base isn’t enough to win a general election. As she said last week on Fox News, “Trump can't win independents. Trump can’t win suburban women. There's a lot of other Republicans he's not getting.”
That’s all true! Yet, Haley stubbornly resists acting on this reality. She outperformed expectations in the New Hampshire primary, but she tanked among self-identified Republicans and conservatives. It was the same story in Iowa, where she came in third behind Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis among Republicans and conservatives. Her consistent strength so far is among independents, moderates, college graduates, and centrist Democrats — the Morning Joe audience. Those groups mostly detest Trump and love when Haley hammers him.
The problem is she’s still courting the MAGA vote, but winning it over is nothing more than a pipe dream. As a result she’s pulling punches. Consider her baffling January 29 Fox News hit.
“This is about freedom,” she said, explaining why voters should choose her and not Trump. “We need to have freedom from government. And what you're seeing is Donald Trump is trying to control more. That’s what worries me.”
But just when you thought she was finally going to call out Trump’s authoritarian leanings — and on Fox News no less — she pulled back to more MAGA pandering.
“We saw this during covid,” she added. “He controlled the fact of what we could do, when we could do, how we could do it.”
DeSantis already tried the Trump-was-a-covid-despot attack, and it failed. It’s especially counterproductive coming from Haley, whose supporters are more likely to believe Trump bungled the pandemic response but not because he briefly supported lockdowns.
Most bizarre was this line: “It’s not about liking Donald Trump. I have no personal issues with Donald Trump. I voted for him twice.”
Really? She has no personal issues with someone who calls her “birdbrain” and makes racists riffs on her name? Haley talks about how Trump’s alienated suburban women who once voted for Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George W. Bush, but she won’t dare express that demo’s utter contempt for Trump. She obviously had personal issues with Vivek Ramaswamy, who she called “scum.” If anything, Trump is more repulsive.
It’s been argued that if Haley went full bore against Trump on his fundamental unfitness, especially regarding January 6 and his attempted coup, she’d touch the third rail of GOP politics. However, she’s already losing badly among Republican voters who think the 2020 election was stolen. Her argument that Trump is a weak general election candidate isn’t landing, as a new South Carolina poll showed that most Republican voters believe Trump has the best shot at beating Joe Biden.
Haley’s only real hope is the million to one shot where she rallies a pro-democracy, anti-Trump coalition, perhaps persuading Democrats to crossover vote in open primaries, as Biden’s nomination is a given. But not even trying. Instead, she’s pursing her own lost cause of trying to wrest control of MAGA from its undisputed leader.
Haley still can’t talk about race without sounding … racist
Whenever Haley caters to an unreceptive MAGA electorate, she turns off sane people who were inclined to support her, even if just to stop Trump. Her recent appearance on The Breakfast Club was a complete disaster. She tried to clean up her gaffe about the cause of the Civil War (it was the slavery, stupid) but wound up generating an equally bad news cycle.
While discussing the 2015 racist shooting at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Haley told co-host Charlamagne tha God that the “national media came in and wanted to define this. They wanted to make it about guns, they wanted to make it about racism, they wanted to make it about the death penalty." Charlamagne had to remind an obstinate Haley that a white supremacist deliberately murdering Black people in a Black church qualifies as a “racist mass killing.”
Her response was paternalistic and insulting: "But the point was I strong-armed [the media] and said there will be a time we talk about all that. But right now, we have nine souls we need to put to rest. I didn't have that luxury. Because two days later the killer came out draped in the Confederate flag ...” (The below video is timestamped to the relevant remarks.)
“Nine souls” are dead and she’s seemingly complaining that she didn’t have the luxury to avoid discussing racism? Haley’s big national moment of leadership after the Charleston massacre was when she called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state house because she recognized that for most Black South Carolinians “the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.” However, in the MAGA age, she has consistently refused to embrace that win.
And she kept digging. When Charlamagne asked Haley why she thought Kamala Harris is such a frightening prospect as president, Haley found a way to somehow bring up Barack Obama, who she blamed for starting the “divisions in our country” — not the white racist backlash and the Tea Party zealotry. No, it was the first Black president’s fault. She won’t mention that Trump promoted the racist birther conspiracy that Obama wasn’t born in the United States, even though Trump dusted off those bigoted smears and used them against Haley herself just a few weeks ago.
Black voters account for 60 percent of South Carolina Democrats. Dragging Harris and Obama isn’t going to endear her to those voters, and if she’s not trying to win over Black Democrats, why was she even on this program? Who was this for?
However, the moment that probably had Haley’s spokespeople reaching for Advil was when she defended Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s standoff with the federal government and went so far as to say that Texas had the right to secede from the United States.
“I think states have the right to make the decisions that their people want to make. I mean, they do,” Haley said. “If that whole state says, 'We don't want to be part of America anymore,' I mean, that's their decision to make.”
No, the Supreme Court ruled in 1869’s Texas v White that secession is illegal, but the more salient point is that the former UN ambassador endorsed extreme “states’ rights” (i.e. dumbass treason) on a hip hop morning show. This wasn’t Steve Bannon’s podcast. But it was like she swapped brains with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
The Breakfast Club interview was the opportunity for Haley to distinguish herself from Trump as someone who actually listens to people with different perspectives and can empathize with them. She failed completely. Slightly “kindler and gentler” Trump is not appealing to anyone.
Haley’s big problem is that whenever she rightly speaks truth to power about Trump, she echoes herself from the 2016 primary, before she sacrificed truth for power. Rather than admitting she made a mistake, as Chris Christie has done, she’s just talking a lot without saying anything. She prefers to stress why she thinks Trump “can’t” win the presidency without saying definitively that he “shouldn’t.” Christie’s campaign had a singular moral purpose: Donald Trump shouldn’t be president again. Nikki Haley might want to be president but she can’t bring herself to say that Donald Trump’s shouldn’t.
That’s it for today
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