Nikki Haley announced her presidential campaign from no man’s land on Wednesday. This wasn’t her geographical location — she rolled out her campaign in Charleston, South Carolina, with the usual fanfare and introductory speakers befitting a presidential hopeful. There was a cheering crowd, freshly printed campaign signs, and a blaring soundtrack of ’70s and ’80s rock music. But Haley’s announcement came from an almost existential space as she tried to bridge the Reaganite Republican Party of the past with the Trumpist party of the present.
Before the rise of Trump, Haley’s brand of politics was considered the future of the Republican Party. A former two-term governor of South Carolina, Haley won the 2010 primary as an underdog at the height of the Tea Party movement with the endorsement of Sarah Palin. In office, she seemed the personification of the political id of the moment within the GOP. An ardent fiscal conservative, she also made gestures toward a truce on culture war issues by veering toward the middle. Most notably, Haley pushed to end the display of the Confederate flag at South Carolina’s state capitol after the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME church in 2015.
With Trump’s rise, Haley has been left in a sort of limbo. Infamously, she has ping-ponged back and forth over her support for the former president, whom she served as UN ambassador until stepping down at the end of 2018. Shortly after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, she said of Trump, “His actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history.” Weeks later, after the House had voted to impeach Trump, Haley went on Fox News to say, “Give the man a break.” Months later, Haley said she would support Trump if he ran in 2024 and wouldn’t mount a campaign against him. Now, they are both competing for the Republican nomination.
This ambivalence seeped through her speech where Haley mounted passive-aggressive stabs at her only rival so far. Haley offered vague criticisms of “stale ideas and faded names of the past” while urging mandatory mental competence tests for politicians over 75. (Trump is 76.) It was a choose-your-own-adventure critique as she heralded the need for “a new generation to lead us into the future.” One could as easily apply it to Joe Biden, who she frequently criticized by name throughout her speech, as to Trump, who went almost unmentioned.
Yet, the disconnect between Trump’s GOP and the one that elected Haley less than a decade ago is gaping, even without taking into account the former president’s presence in the 2024 race.
Haley did not mention her most notable moment in the national spotlight, the removal of the Confederate flag in 2015, in her speech. In the video released Tuesday, the mass shooting was highlighted as a horror that illustrated the need to “turn away from fear and toward the God and the values that still make our country the freest and greatest on Earth.”
The speech contained a heaping amount of hawkish foreign policy rhetoric in an attempt to find common ground within the Republican coalition of the past and the Republican coalition of the present. “Communist China won’t just lose,” Haley declared. “Like the Soviet Union before it, Communist China will end up on the ash heap of history.”
Yet even in her foreign policy remarks, the seams were evident. When she said, “We will stand with our allies from Israel to Ukraine and stand up to our enemies in Iran and Russia,” Haley touched a wedge issue within the GOP as more and more Republicans follow Trump’s dovish line toward Putin. It was one of the first things the Trump campaign criticized about her in a rapid-response email sent moments after Haley left the stage. “Instead of Finding a Peaceful Solution to the Ukraine-Russia War, Haley Has Supported Sending More American Fighter Planes to Fuel the War,” trumpeted her rival’s campaign.
The challenge for Haley is whether she can come up with a unique selling point for her to appeal to voters in the next year. Much of her speech consisted of traditional Republican rhetoric, praising American exceptionalism and criticizing Democrats for being weak and profligate. It’s the type of message that is standard fare at every Lincoln Day dinner in the country.
Even her closing presented a dilemma. Haley insisted that she could finally deliver victory for her party. “I have a particular message for our fellow Republicans. We’ve lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight elections. Our cause is right but we have failed to win the confidence of a majority of Americans. That ends today.”
The problem is that there’s one person who disagrees with that simple statement about the GOP’s electoral fortunes in recent presidential elections: Donald Trump. And he just happens to be the frontrunner.