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Election 2024

Gage Skidmore/Flickr.

Nikki Haley’s Presidential Bid Is As Dysfunctional As Her Party

Haley’s campaign announcement was an amalgamation of a dozen different Republican ideas—none of which seem to unify the party anymore.

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Grab a drink, America, because the 2024 Republican presidential primary is already a giant mess! In a video announcement on Tuesday morning, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley formally declared her presidential dreams to the people of Twitter. That news that would have packed more theatrical punch had Team Haley not spent much of the past two weeks extensively pre-announcing their big surprise to every media outlet willing to pick up the phone.

The end result was a campaign launch engineered within an inch of its life by Washington media consultants who are already trying to split the difference between portraying Haley as a mature, safe conservative and a passionate right-wing culture warrior. The cheesiness of Haley’s announcement is offset by the reality that she is, for now, running essentially unchallenged. Former President Donald Trump announced his run back in November, but so far he’s failed to build infrastructure for his campaign and is reportedly struggling to raise money. Others, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and fellow South Carolinian Sen. Tim Scott, have yet to formally enter the fray. For this brief moment, it’s Haley’s show.

Haley’s early decision says a lot about the current state of the Republican Party—and where Trump’s former ambassador to the UN views herself in the Right’s increasingly unstable power structure. She lacks the fund-raising machinery of a MAGA champion like DeSantis, and doesn’t play to grassroots crowds as well as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another disaffected Trumper in search of a political revival. So what gives?

In order to understand Haley’s decision, it’s important to deconstruct the public image she’s paying media consultants and video editors millions of dollars to project. Nowhere is that clearer than in the nearly four-minute media announcement video Haley inflicted on America’s most online voters.

The video is a roller coaster of cringe content that could be mistaken for a Late Show parody of Republican sensationalism. Haley, the child of Indian immigrants, doesn’t make it 20 seconds before reassuring her audience that she’s “not Black”—a line meant to reassure the more than 50 percent of Republicans who believe Black Americans have it too good. Haley goes on to criticize “some” people who think “America’s founding principles are bad,” while grainy, ominous images of the 1619 Project and anti-racism activists scroll across the screen. Nearly a full minute of the video is dedicated to marginalizing the idea that racism is a “real” problem. It’s not subtle stuff.

In a bizarre segue, Haley cynically references the 2015 massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, by white supremacist Dylann Roof—a shooting driven by the same racist extremism Haley just shrugged off as a liberal fantasy. But Haley doesn’t even mention Roof’s racism as a culprit—instead, she uses the Charleston tragedy as a sick opportunity to lecture Democrats, who Haley claims have turned away from God.

Haley’s video is a confusing mess largely because it tries pandering to everyone at once. In one breath, Haley is playing the DeSantis-style right-wing populist demagogue, and Sarah Palin, spouting a focus-group-tested line about how “fighting back in heels hurts more.” She swings at imagined demons like transgender children and “critical race theory.” In the process, Haley sounds like an amalgamation of a dozen different Republican presidential hopefuls—but not at all like the Nikki Haley of even a few years ago, whoever that was.

Maybe Haley has correctly surmised that a right-wing base hopped up on anti-trans, anti-abortion, anti-“woke” pablum isn’t interested in hearing about her work as ambassador to the United Nations. Haley hoped that position would offer the best of both worlds: cementing her position as a loyal Team Trump functionary while also filling a respected international role that conveniently insulated her from the day-to-day chaos of the Trump White House.

In 2017, my colleague Heather Digby Parton wrote in these pages about the disappointing likelihood that America’s first female president would likely be a Republican. In charting an under-the-radar path that has kept her outside the center of Trump’s ethical storms while also allowing her to claim total ideological unity with him on policy, Haley is hoping the political machine she’s built can survive 2024—either by beating her former boss for the nomination, or making her a leading choice for the vice-presidency as one of the GOP’s “grown-ups.” There’s just one problem: It’s not clear anyone in the Republican Party is actually looking for a grown-up.

The increasing extremism of the GOP base is by now a well-recorded phenomenon captured in dozens if not hundreds of polls and voter focus groups. A party that once defined itself on the strength and soundness of its foreign policy has now turned almost completely inward, forsaking complex issues like Ukraine in favor of banning AP African American History courses from public schools, harassing transgender children and their families, and banning “objectionable” books from libraries. In response, Haley is transforming herself from Washington diplomat to fascist warrior.

Haley’s biggest stumbling block is one she shares with countless other 2024 Republican presidential hopefuls: the Trump connection. Haley once famously said she doesn’t believe Donald Trump lies, and later struggled to name a single area where they disagreed. After years giving increasingly strained excuses for Trump’s misconduct, Haley has created a veritable library of ready-made campaign ads the former president will be happy with which to slam her. At the same time, Haley still struggles to explain her sudden belief that Trump is no longer the future of the Republican Party.

Haley looks so out of place because none of these last-minute ideological corrections were of her own choosing. By now, it should be clear to any ambitious Republican that there is no longer a winning constituency of center-right Republican voters. What few of those exist have already rallied behind Mike Pence, and it isn’t even clear those formerly “establishment” Republicans have enough support to make a difference. It’s clear from her public statements and media appearances between 2020 and 2022 that Haley envisioned her primary campaign unfolding like John McCain’s in 2008 or Mitt Romney’s in 2012.

Unfortunately for Haley, that center-right path disappeared in the smoke and fury of January 6, when the GOP’s extremists made their largely successful play to seize what was left of the party’s national machinery. Haley bowed to that reality in 2022 when she agreed to campaign for election-denying Republicans less than a year after decrying election-fraud conspiracy theories as dangerous. That hamfisted move didn’t win her any new friends, either. Center-right Pence Republicans saw Haley’s move as a sign she lacked backbone. Meanwhile the MAGA Right, which already regarded her with the suspicion they reserve for “intellectuals,” saw Haley’s campaigning for New Hampshire Senate candidate Don Bolduc as more strategic than heartfelt. They hate that.

If Haley expected her presidential announcement to shift the foundations of the GOP, the party’s silence will come as a necessary humbling. The party apparatus Haley spent much of her life diligently climbing is now hopelessly broken. Once fringe party radicals now control key House committees and much of the Republican National Committee. In more principled hands, Haley’s announcement could have been used to challenge the GOP’s growing dysfunction while positioning herself as the leader best positioned to pull the party up from its ideological cesspit.

Instead, Haley once again bent her values and even her identity in a shallow effort to look more appealing to the howling Trumpist base. The GOP may well have a party savior within its ranks, but it sure isn’t Nikki Haley.

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