Nikki Haley is back, but is she built to last?
That question won’t be on many minds these coming weeks, as the former U.N. ambassador and governor of South Carolina hits the speech circuit, with stops including Iowa Senator Joni Ernst’s annual Roast ’n Ride event. I’ve been impressed so far, but have my doubts that she can keep it up.
There are already whispers about her bright political future, partly because she’s so talented—and partly because it’s pretty clear to everyone watching that Haley has designs on the presidency. Someday.
The 47-year-old has plenty of time. What is more, by virtue of a sassy style and some distance (she was located in New York City—which insulated her from some of Trump’s chaos), the former South Carolina governor who resigned to serve as ambassador to the United Nations managed the nearly impossible task of keeping her dignity while serving in the Trump administration.
And then she got out while she was still on top—resigning on her terms and timing, rather than being ushered out with a tweet.
But nobody can stay on top forever, and Haley now faces two big challenges: 1) How to stay relevant without an office, and 2) How to retain credibility as a serious, thoughtful leader and simultaneously stay in the good graces of Donald Trump and his voters.
Let’s start with her biding her time. The American public arena is a fickle mistress, but shrewd operators find a way.
After losing the 1962 California gubernatorial race, Nixon spent his time in the wilderness barnstorming the country and campaigning for Republicans in the 1966 midterms. He then went dark, allowing the media to pick apart George Romney, before winning the nomination (and the presidency) in 1968.
Ronald Reagan famously honed his message and stayed in the public eye after losing the 1976 GOP primary by writing columns and writing and delivering radio commentary. But he only needed to bide his time for a couple of years.
In 2008, Sarah Palin was the conservative darling. She milked that celebrity status for years, going so far as getting the media to take the bait and chase her bus tour around in 2011. By 2016, I don’t think anybody would have taken another tease terribly seriously.
Haley, if she is to stay in the public eye, may need to pull this off for four or five years should Trump win re-election.
Maybe she will find a way to get elected or appointed to a significant position. But remember, the challenge isn’t just to stay in the public eye. Paris Hilton could do that. She also has to stay in the media, while appearing thoughtful and serious, yet never fully cross the line in a way that would offend Trump and alienate his base.
One obvious move would be to comment on current events. But, again, she will need to be strategic and choosy about when and how she chimes in.
As a former Trump critic (she endorsed Marco Rubio in the South Carolina primary), Haley will never be fully trusted by some in Trump’s base. Yet it’s pretty clear that there aren’t enough Never Trumpers in the electorate to sustain her political future.
Frankly, it’s a miracle that Haley has been able to pull this off for so long. But can she do it for five years? I’m skeptical. Already, I’m starting to find myself thinking less of her—viewing her maneuvering as transparent and too cute by half.
When I saw the cover of Nikki Haley’s forthcoming memoir, I had mixed emotions. Part of me still sees her as a heroine, but part of me sees her as a parody of herself—a conservative Selina Meyer.
How long can she sustain this balancing act? Recently, we have seen signs of schizophrenic messaging. For example, Haley warns conservative high schoolers against “owning the libs” (which doesn’t jibe with Trump’s style)—but then raves about Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk, gushing, “Congrats Charlie. We are so proud of you” (which may repel more than one Never Trumper).
It’s easy to look at Haley and see nothing but a rising star. She seemingly has it all. She’s an Indian-American female who has succeeded in serious leadership roles and who was almost uniquely able to retain her image and popularity while serving Trump. And she has youth on her side.
While she has mostly threaded the needle so far, the obvious danger is that, by trying to please everybody, you end up pleasing nobody.
What is more, it’s important to remember how much can change in politics in a short period of time. A couple of years ago, nobody had ever heard of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Five years ago, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were conservative rising stars and Donald Trump was a joke.
Things move pretty fast. If Nikki Haley can find a way to make it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 2024, she will have shown herself to be one of the most canny operators in America. And she will deserve it.