Haley’s Comet | Washington Monthly

Back in February, when Nikki Haley entered the GOP presidential race, she was given little chance of emerging as the leading candidate to oppose Donald Trump. At the time, Ron DeSantis seemed destined to become the Republican alternative to the former president. Since then, Haley didn’t so much get better, as the Florida governor got so much worse, laughing awkwardly, picking fights, and losing to everyone from Mickey Mouse to the late Toni Morrison. With the head of DeSantis’s PAC quitting Thursday, a reported staff shakeup at his super PAC,  and money dwindling, more and more of his supporters wonder what they ever saw in the Yale College-Harvard Law faux-populist.

For a good evening’s work, Haley collected a million dollars over the next few days to add to her $11.6 million on hand, a new rush of billionaires, including Jamie Dimon and the deep-pocketed Koch family, fueling a press-approved boomlet. 

Boomlets come and go and usually end up as temporary salves for long rides to lumpy beds after evenings of drive-by receptions with lukewarm Chardonnay. Haley’s Comet may be different. In 2009, she had a prior boomlet in a race she had zero chance of winning. Stuck in fourth place for much of the GOP primary for governor of South Carolina against three political heavyweights, she eventually leapfrogged over a lieutenant governor, a former attorney general who would go on to be governor, and a popular U.S. congressman one by one. Ultimately, she beat them all for the Republican nomination and went on to win the governorship in 2010, moving into the stately antebellum governor’s mansion in 2011 and serving until 2017, when she resigned to become Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. 

She’s not out of her league in this primary, but she is on unfamiliar terrain without Google Maps. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs decision, the world was in tumult for ambitious Republican candidates. Quickly, a dozen states, under the influence of the exultant Christian right, enacted near-total abortion bans. Voters revolted, and soon Republicans were losing so often that they were getting tired of losing. Midterm elections in 2020 and ballot initiatives in ruby-red states like Kansas, Montana, and Kentucky were a disaster for the GOP and their right-to-life allies. The night before the third GOP presidential debate in Miami last month, voters in Ohio approved an amendment to the state’s constitution to guarantee the right to abortion. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, who the Republican donor class had been looking to as a white knight to save them from Trump, promised a 15-week abortion ban if voters would turn the commonwealth’s legislature Republican. He lost both chambers and any hope of being drafted into the race.

Haley, who is as fierce an opponent of legal abortion as any Republican, didn’t make Youngkin’s mistake or that of other officials who would force motherhood on women who find themselves unintentionally and unexpectedly pregnant. Refusing to ban abortion used to be the third rail of Republican primaries, and promising a ban was the third rail of the general, but no more. There had to be a fourth, non-lethal rail, and Haley found it: Not having a core belief on abortion was the core belief that would work. She rode that rail out of Miami a winner. 

You’ll know she’ll take it out for another spin at Wednesday’s debate at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa when her voice rises from no-nonsense PowerPoint presenter to nursery school sub announcing it’s time for juice boxes. First, because no one knows what the Senate will do on abortion, she can’t tell us what she would do. Since a national ban can’t prevail, she’s not campaigning on one. 

Second, she has a vague yet impassioned “Can’t We All Get Along?”-schtick on how we (but not the Senate) can surely find consensus on a schism that has led to the murder of doctors, the harassment of patients, and forced births. Haley recited poll-tested goals: making birth control pills non-prescription, easing adoption regulations (she notes that her husband was adopted), and clamping down on late-term abortions (although they comprise 1% of the number of procedures, usually under circumstances so dire and unexpected that the crib is assembled and the baby’s name chosen). The Methodist mother of two serves this with a dollop of “I’ve been there, girl,” adding that she had a hard time conceiving. She’s helping babies and helping moms by not jailing them for ending a pregnancy. Pro-life, pro-choice, no diff: “As much as I’m pro-life, I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice, and I don’t want them to judge me for being pro-life.” 

Third, she accuses any candidate who promises to fight for a federal ban of deceit. “Don’t make the American people think that you’re going to push something on them when we don’t have the votes,” she says, citing the 60 votes needed in the U.S. Senate to overcome a filibuster so that even if the GOP holds the House and recaptures the upper chamber, it won’t be a big enough to pass a nationwide abortion ban. The “American people” are moderate Republicans, Democrats, women, swing voters, and Planned Parenthood. 

For an added bit of drama at the debate last month, Haley turned on her fellow South Carolinian Tim Scott—whom she appointed to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat and who has since dropped out—as guileless as they come and begged him “to be honest with the American people” about the futility of federal action. So, the dishonest candidate is Scott, and the honest one is Haley, who blames the Senate—of as yet unknown composition but likely to have a clear Republican majority—for defeating a federal ban that neither chamber could begin to deal with before January 2025. 

How you feel about Haley’s footwork depends on where you sit. The two largest anti-abortion organizations are not buying it. The solution is not to “dodge the issue and go soft on it,” says Concerned Women for America. Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America said enough with all the “nuance,” tell us “what the candidates would actually do.” Haley dissed Scott, but CWA heralded him as “the only one with clarity.” 

Haley is also helped by the fears of Republican partisans alarmed that an increasingly unhinged madman could win the nomination, sending the party to a cataclysmic defeat next year. She’s also helped by the fears of Republicans and independents, alarmed that an increasingly unhinged madman could win the nomination and the presidency, sending the country into a cataclysm. These Planet Earth Republicans will go with whoever has the best chance to topple Trump, braying that he will act out his dreams of a dictatorship. Haley, DeSantis—the normie voters don’t care who staves off Armageddon. Just save us. 

As for Republicans, they still officially back abortion restrictions while working furiously to reduce their electoral casualties. Quietly, the party is relieved someone could “thread the needle,” a euphemism for lulling both sides to thinking she’s on theirs. Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, as anti-abortion as any Republican, said talking about abortion should be a “highly organic process and an ongoing conversation.” At a briefing by a super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Republicans got a “wake-up call” that more people, including Republicans, had moved into the “pro-choice camp” and to adapt accordingly. Frank Luntz, the consultant known for Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America and changing the lexicon of swapping levies on estates for ominous “death taxes,” was impressed by Haley’s abortion rhetoric. He deemed hers “the best Republican answer on abortion” and urged others to follow. “The GOP would be stronger if they used her language.” Republican strategist David Kochel, a powerhouse of Iowa politics, said, “Everyone’s kind of heading in the same direction because it makes so much sense.” 

The money agrees. After leaping to second place, leaving DeSantis in fourth, Haley hauled in donations from billionaires like Jamie Dimon and small donors alike. The Koch family’s political machine is now backing her.

The Carolina Contortionist is not just comfortable in her five-inch heels; she’s comfortable in her heels perched on a fence. She’s for a six-week ban. She’s for a 20-week ban. She’s for no national ban! She loves Trump. She hates Trump. She often says he was the right president at the right time, the man who appointed her ambassador to the United Nations and who sincerely believed he had won the 2020 election.

But on the other hand, he’s an unelectable criminal defendant. She swore she wouldn’t run against Mar-a-Lago Mussolini—until she announced she would. She said she wouldn’t support him for president should he be the party’s nominee—until she raised her hand in the affirmative at the first debate, even if, by next summer’s convention, he’s a convicted felon. Later, she allowed that she might pardon him. 

All that straddling comes with a toll. Last month, in a Wall Street Journal interview, when Haley was asked if she was “more with the Trump wing of the party or with traditional Republicans,” Haley chose…both and, therefore, neither. But here, the record is clear: Haley didn’t muddy her positions as a Tea Party candidate for South Carolina governor in 2010. She was all in favor of cutting spending and reducing taxes, against accepting Medicaid expansion for her poor state, and unmistakably anti-abortion. She is for guns, however they are carried, and against gun safety measures, however modest and sensible, including red flag laws. At the U.N., she was proud to help Trump walk away from the Paris Climate Accords.

While Haley goes Stepford Wife when she talks about abortion, she is animated when talking about foreign policy. She looks Reaganite compared to her Putin-lovin’ party: Support Ukraine and Israel, build a strong defense, and don’t trust Vlad. Despite the egg-shell white suits, she has a taste for blood, calling tech bro Vivek Ramaswamy “scum” for pointing out that Haley’s daughter had posted on the hated TikTok. With no brief for Ramaswamy, Haley’s daughter is grown, and this mom is not above dragging Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, into a conversation. 

With success comes scrutiny. Haley’s needle threading didn’t play as well in Iowa, where Bob Vander Plaats, the influential evangelical leader, prefaced an interview with Haley at his annual Family Leader Thanksgiving Forum with the warning that his members felt she had gone too pro-choice. To clear up any confusion, he asked if she still supported a six-week ban on abortion like she did as South Carolina’s Republican governor. She said yes, but the truth came too late to get the group’s endorsement. That went to Meatball Ron.

Lesson: A simple question yields a direct answer. The moderators of the next debate on Wednesday should try it on Haley when she waves the anti-abortion flag while hedging her bets. In a New York Times profile in February, “5 Things To Know About Nikki Haley,” her take on abortion didn’t make the cut. In the hundreds of stories about the 10-year-old girl faced with mothering the child of her rapist if she didn’t flee Ohio, with its six-week ban for Indiana, with its ten-week one, DeSantis was frequently mentioned but rarely Haley. 

Campaigns are usually where candidates proclaim what they will fight for—Abraham Lincoln to end the expansion of slavery, Franklin Roosevelt to end the Depression, and Lyndon Johnson to expand civil rights. Haley fights for bonhomie. She’s about everyone magically getting along on America’s most controversial issue. It’s true we can get along, even over the holidays, but not if the 51-year-old insults our intelligence with bromides like “moms want the same thing.” I’m a mom, and like others I know, I don’t want a child who’s been raped to go through childbirth if she doesn’t learn she’s pregnant before Haley’s six-week ban kicks in. 

The Clemson grad has a lot to learn about faking it. Trump nominated three justices to the Supreme Court who swore they would be bound by precedent—and then overturned a half-century of it. For Republicans, that sleight of hand—or perjury, if you aren’t being prissy about it—led to the dog catching the car, and GOP canines don’t know how to drive.

After a lifetime of womanizing and with at least one court finding him liable for rape, Trump, who created the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority, is now walking back the right-to-life mantle that was never sincere in the first place—and making Haley look straightforward. Trump acts as if he had nothing to do with what landed Republicans in this mess and won’t say what he’s for, only that he’s against a six-week ban and wants a “deal.” He’s frighteningly open about his other plans: shredding the constitution to eliminate “vermin,” making the Justice Department his legal team, turning the military into his Praetorian Guard, and installing his golf caddies as civil servants. 

Vander Plaats got Haley to confess that she would sign a six-week ban. It follows that given the opportunity to replace pro-life septuagenarians Thomas or Alito, she would nominate friskier versions of the same. On the plus side, she won’t end democracy. 

To quote Woody Allen (when he was still Woody Allen) from his commencement address on the choices facing graduates: “One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction.” Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly. 

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