Here’s a prediction: If the 2024 general election is between Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, America will have its first woman president. It won’t be a Democrat focused on the glass ceiling, but a conservative daughter of immigrants from South Carolina who dismissed identity politics in her kickoff speech.
Of course, that is a tall order for an untested candidate polling at 1 percent in a Monmouth University survey. It is contingent on navigating the choppy waters of a growing GOP primary field likely awash with others arguing for generational change. It requires a compelling and clear rationale for her candidacy and addressing lingering questions about former President Donald Trump, the person whose administration she served and once vowed not to compete against.
But Haley’s strengths should not be underestimated, especially these three.
First, she has foreign policy chops. After four items were shot out of the skies in eight days without explanation, Americans are unsettled. Speculation is running so rampant that the White House press secretary declared “no indication of aliens.” Meanwhile, the war between Ukraine and Russia is escalating at its one-year mark, and the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan remains a blemish.
From her tenure as United Nations ambassador, Haley has experience on the international stage. On her watch, the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, approved new sanctions against North Korea and spoke out against the world’s worst human rights abusers.
Second, the state Haley was elected twice to govern and the broader southeast region is flourishing. From Georgia to Florida to South Carolina, it’s no accident that some of the most prominent names in the GOP hail from the region. It’s also more than just a warm climate. Thriving economies and the COVID-19 pandemic are fueling these migration patterns.
Under Haley’s tenure, South Carolina’s unemployment rate hit a 15-year low. Last year its population grew at the third fastest rate in the nation.
Third, as a former governor, Haley can fall back on her executive experience. From mass shootings to hurricanes to negotiating a bipartisan compromise removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse, her tenure in Columbia was eventful. Unlike senators, governors have more responsibilities than delivering floor speeches or attending hearings. This is a useful contrast point not only in a primary but also with President Biden, who spent 36 years in the Senate and arrived at the White House with no executive experience beyond his time in the Obama administration.
Of course, Haley faces challenges from her left and right, especially around Trump. Following her 2018 resignation from his administration, even the New York Times editorial page praised her as “that rarest of Trump appointees: one who can exit the administration with her dignity largely intact.” Yet Haley famously pledged not to run against Trump in 2024, a promise she is now breaking. It was not the political death knell for a first-term senator named Barack Obama who ruled out a presidential run in 2006 only to reverse course two years later.
In the days after the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, Haley predicted Trump would not, “run for federal office again.” Queried on his conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, she would only say, “he believes it.”
These issues alone may not sink Haley in a GOP primary but expect her rivals to highlight the inconsistencies to raise questions about her character. Some of her colleagues in the Trump administration, including her old boss, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have grumbled about her decision to leave early. The Wall Street Journal editorial board raised questions about her, “speaking in the absence of knowledge.”
Above all, electability has never been a persuasive argument for Republican voters. The ability to defeat Biden will not cut it. Even with all his baggage, in some polls, Trump is still polling ahead of the sitting president. If they are being honest, many Democrats will admit that Biden’s best chance of reelection hinges on Trump as the GOP standard bearer, the rematch of 2020 that 6 in 10 Americans do not want.
In fact, any Republican not named Trump would likely start as the proverbial frontrunner versus Biden. Many contemporaries of the 50-year-old Haley will be calling for generational change against the 80-year-old Biden. Haley could well be the alternative candidate, but so could any of the others preparing to make the plunge.
No doubt Nikki Haley has her work cut out for her, but it would be a mistake to write her off. Now that she is an official candidate, the true test begins.