Nikki Haley has been frequently attacking her opponent for the Republican presidential nomination ever since her strong showing in last week’s New Hampshire primary. She has criticized Trump for ignoring her invitations to debate her and for his continued erratic and forgetful behavior. She has also refused to denounce legal cases against the former president and has tried to stand apart on some issues of policy. On foreign policy, for instance, Haley recently said, “I think that Trump has copped out because he used to get it right and now he’s turning around and he’s getting it wrong wanting to be an isolationist.”
Haley has a strategy
This move from Haley is seen as weak and shallow by a large number of political commentators. They emphasize her constant flip-flops on the former president and her reticence to criticize him until the race was narrowed down to two candidates after New Hampshire. She did serve as his Ambassador to the United Nations and endorsed him for president in 2016 and 2020. Besides, these recent overtures do nothing to obscure her status as a conservative stalwart who holds a number of policy positions odious to the left and much of the center. As Ed Kilgore wrote two weeks ago, “It’s very clear that Haley is best understood as a hard-core holdover from the pre-Trump ‘movement conservatives’ who aren’t happy with the 45th president’s ‘America First’ foreign policies, his protectionism, and his open defiance of the Constitution, but are very far from anything resembling the political ‘center.'” Many observers believe she still wants a chance at the vice presidency and the possibility to inherit Trump’s supporters one day.
But making these attacks against Trump definitely comes with risk. Trump has threatened her donors and turned the full force of his supporters against the former South Carolina governor. Despite the late nature of this development, her attacks are still refreshing and point to a coherent strategy from Haley, something that many of Trump’s rivals have not had in the past year.
Lessons from the DeSantis campaign
The Ron DeSantis campaign shows the perils of not attacking Trump as a primary candidate. DeSantis tried as hard as he could to agree with Trump on everything. He approved Trump’s approaches to immigration, foreign policy, and taxes and tried to adopt them as his own. On the few points he disagreed with Trump on, such as COVID vaccinations, DeSantis took pains to argue that he was reflecting the proper Trumpian line.
But DeSantis’ position as a Trump alternative was never going to work with Trump actually in the race. Voters would never be satisfied with an alternative if they could obtain the real object. The only argument DeSantis could muster, which was electability, collapsed the moment the first poll came out showing Trump in the lead over Biden. If Republican voters could have Trump, ignore his pro-vaccine comments, and have a good chance of supporting Biden, why would they want anything else?
Nikki Haley finally understands this dilemma. It was likely her plan all along to push DeSantis out of the race before clearly drawing a line between her and her opponent. This approach, of course, has its downsides as a practical strategy. It is hard to run against Trump for the nomination of the party in which he serves as the beloved leader. But it is the only approach available to Haley, a candidate who may not be able to gain this kind of momentum and run again in 2028. She only has to look at the failed campaign of Chris Christie, not to mention the missed opportunities of Mitch Daniels and Colin Powell, to see that the next election is never guaranteed.
Political commentators should respect Haley for drawing the ire of President Trump’s supporters through her attacks. Haley is already facing a torrent of death threats and stalking from Trump supporters, an inevitability of taking such a strong stance against the former president. Democrats should also acknowledge the importance of healthy debate on the Republican side. A coronation would simply extend the general election season and leave more time for Republicans to bash President Biden. Instead, Haley is creating a race that will give Republicans more opportunities to consider the values of their party and potential alternatives to their current leader. This race has value even if it ends on the evening of February 24.
Republicans should want a real primary challenge as well. One day, Trump will no longer be on the political scene. Some of his supporters might abandon the party, and whoever succeeds him will have to cobble together a new coalition. It is better for the party, and frankly for the nation, if the Republican Party at least starts to think about this succession with the Haley campaign sooner rather than later.