Nikki Haley Cannot Beat Trump
The dichotomy between Trump and everyone else just became clearer for Iowans.
A new poll out of Iowa last weekend had Nikki Haley tied with Ron DeSantis for second place in the state Republican presidential primary. Emboldened by Haley’s jump, certain voices on the Never Trump right began to make noises almost immediately about the possibility of a Haley victory in 2024. The American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Strain even argued the former South Carolina governor could take Trump in a head-to-head match.
The strategic argument for a Haley win looks like this: Ron DeSantis cannot beat Donald Trump. Therefore, Nikki Haley must.
There is, admittedly, a bit more nuance to the argument than this, but not much. As former GOP presidential candidate Will Hurd argued for the Wall Street Journal last month, “donors, influencers, elected officials and candidates” must not wait to “consolidate” around a single challenger if they want to have any hope of beating the New York real estate mogul for the Republican nomination.
Strain took that thought and ran with it. “This is an all-hands-on-deck moment,” he urged at National Review on Monday. “Without positive action, Trump will be the nominee. Leaders on the right need to do all they can to deny Trump the nomination. That requires giving primary voters a real choice between Trump and one alternative.”
Haley, for Hurd and for Strain, is that one alternative. Why? Because her temperament is optimistic and her foreign policy is radically interventionist, as evidenced by her cast of every recent conflict, from Ukraine to Israel, as “a fight between ‘good and evil.’” As Haley herself said last week in a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, “It’s nice to have so many Israel supporters in one room. Lord knows we need more in America right now.”
In other words, Haley is the woman for the job because she is a Republican of an era that the good old boys in Washington would do almost anything to bring back to life.
Of course, pining for the 1980s is an all-but-guaranteed way to lose the presidential contest, as we saw in 2008, 2012, and 2016. Whatever the good old boys in Washington want, it is not what the majority of American people want today. Arguably, it is not what they have wanted for a while: In rejecting John McCain and Mitt Romney, voters were beginning to sour on certain core tenets of the neoliberal consensus, particularly the religious belief in the ability of capitalism to solve every problem and in America as the world’s policeman. Once again, we see that the real thorn in the neoconservatives’ side is not just Trump, but every American who voted, and continues to vote, for both him and other more populist candidates. Candidates like Haley just make that dichotomy clearer.
Even if the political landscape had not changed before 2016, however, it has certainly changed afterward. Which is why, in the Iowa poll we’re supposed to believe foreshadows a Haley victory, Trump not only held his former, enormous lead, he also expanded it to 43 percent. He is leading the second and third choice picks, in Iowa at least, by a formidable 27-point gap. That is not a margin of error, but evidence of an undeniable preference.
Some members of the establishment seem to be taking longer than others to realize this. Until his recent drop out of the presidential contest, that category would have included Mike Pence.
Pence’s exit helps Haley: Both have campaigned on platitudes about the free market and the American Dream, and both are hawkish on foreign policy. Unlike Pence, Haley is a woman. According to the operative political orthodoxy du jour, that is supposed to mean she is more electable.
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But while Pence’s exit helps Haley, the same would not be true of any of the other candidates worth mentioning. The only two remaining notables, Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy, have both embraced their own riffs on the Trump strategy, not to mention several of the key priorities of the “new” right. This has been to their distinct advantage, while also making both the men highly unlikely to endorse anyone other than Trump should they drop out. The others, meanwhile, have no impression worth noting: Hurd, of course, has already endorsed Haley, but whose vote has he influenced? It’s hard to imagine even Chris Christie’s word having an impact half as large as the man himself.
This is the crux of the argument for a Haley win, that consolidation around Neocon Nikki will be the nail in Trump’s coffin. It’s hard to see what it consists of, beside a determination to repeat the errors of Romney era Republican politics for the sole goal of never seeing another populist president in the White House.
The Never Trump crowd is right about one thing, however. A Haley coalition, if pulled off, would make crystal clear the juxtaposition between the GOP establishment and the post-Trump right. The question is whether most Americans, viewing that choice, will vote with the think tank employees.