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Nikki Haley’s chameleon complex Republicans don't want another empty suit

'... whose colours change so frequently one wonders if there's any true hue beneath' (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

'... whose colours change so frequently one wonders if there's any true hue beneath' (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)


January 10, 2024   5 mins

In the political theatre of the 2024 Republican primaries, a curious spectacle unfolds: Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador, is dancing a delicate ballet. Her performance, however, is less Swan Lake and more like a precarious tightrope walk, where the slightest misstep could send her tumbling into the abyss of political irrelevance. Amid a colourful cast of characters featuring the intellectually provocative but oddly unlikeable Vivek Ramaswamy and the wonky, tone-deaf Ron DeSantis, Haley has emerged as the ultimate empty-suit candidate, a chameleon whose colours change so frequently one wonders if there’s any true hue beneath.

Haley’s recent comments about the Republican primaries tell the tale. Speaking on a local Iowa PBS station, she remarked: “[The Iowa Caucus] starts it. You change personalities, you go into New Hampshire.” These words encapsulate her approach: adapt, morph, become whatever the moment demands. In Iowa, where she is rising in the polls but still trailing both frontrunner Donald Trump and DeSantis, who has several political endorsements influential in Iowa, she paints herself as the tribune of patriotic, God-fearing America.

But in New Hampshire, where she is polling much higher and even getting within striking distance of Trump, she adopts a different persona, one that supposedly resonates more deeply with the emotional and forthright nature of its independent-minded voters. The gameplan, however, is the same, as she told the state’s voters last week: “You know, Iowa starts it. You know that you correct it [in New Hampshire]
 And then my sweet state of South Carolina brings it home. That’s what we do.” This flexibility is both her secret weapon and her Achilles’ heel, betraying her lack of a core, enduring identity. It’s a remarkably transparent act of political shape-shifting that indicates a deeper identity crisis within Haley’s campaign.

Haley’s political biography is rife with instances of flip-flopping, none more illustrative than her stance on the Confederate flag. Once a staunch defender of its presence at the South Carolina statehouse because — one cannot make this up — “not a single CEO has complained”, Haley quickly reversed her position following mass shooter Dylann Roof’s attack on a Charleston church. This pivot, while a response to a seismic shift in public sentiment, highlights a pattern of opportunistic realignment rather than principled leadership; her hand was forced, in her words, because Roof had “hijacked the flag”. She added that it had to go because “no one should feel pain” at the sight of it, even as it remained a symbol of “service, sacrifice, and heritage” for “some” South Carolinians. It’s always a dance of two steps forward, one step back, leaving observers confused about where Haley truly stands amid all the practised corporate doublespeak.

Haley’s relationship with Trump continued her career of political vacillation. Initially a critic, particularly during the 2016 election when she won a modicum of fame by replying to an attack from the GOP insurgent by saying “bless your heart”, she gradually warmed to Trump and ended up supporting him despite her reservations. “I will not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the KKK,” she once said, only to later call Trump, of whom she was still “not a fan”, the “best person based on the policies”. For her trouble, she received a post as UN Ambassador — from which she resigned in December 2018 after news came to light of her receiving improper luxury plane trips from South Carolina business leaders. (She met the much sillier allegation of a possible affair with Trump raised by journalist Michael Wolff with justifiable derision.)

Following the events of January 6, her stance shifted again, oscillating between criticism and support. This remains the tightrope that Haley — unlike DeSantis, Ramaswamy or Christie — spends much of her time walking. And in comparison with those three, who each have their signature issues, whether it be DeSantis’s putative Right-wing march through Florida’s institutions or Christie’s blustery anti-Trump posturing, Haley occupies a place of no-place. She must offer a safe alternative to Trump — or, perhaps more cynically, make herself attractive enough to be a possible running mate for him — while keeping her rebukes within acceptable bounds. One need only analyse her public statements to understand how strange this is: she chastised Trump for his response to the Capitol riots, yet strongly opposed his second impeachment (“Give the man a break”).

A month later, Haley was writing in the Wall Street Journal that she largely supported all of his “outstanding” policies, which “made America stronger, safer, and more prosperous” — policies she has spent much of the current primary season promising to protect and extend. However, she has also said that Trump himself, the architect of all this outstanding policymaking, “cannot win a general election”. Nevertheless, she added: “I would support him because I am not going to have a President Kamala Harris” after Joe Biden steps down. How, one wonders, could she avoid this eventuality if she is throwing the weight of her endorsement behind a figure she regards as unelectable?

This love-hate dynamic with Trump speaks to a deeper issue: Haley’s inability to carve out a distinct political identity independent of the prevailing winds within the GOP. Her strategy, however, is not without its small measure of cunning. She targets the “moderate” conservative voter, a shrinking but well-off demographic disillusioned with the extremes yet hesitant to embrace the Republican Left, especially in the narcissistic “NeverTrump” guise it has adopted Ă  la Liz Cheney. It’s a savvy move, but one that may underestimate the intelligence of these voters. Perhaps they seek substance, not just a polished veneer of diversity and business acumen. If so, Haley offers them little more than platitudes and carefully calibrated sound bites.

Then again, maybe this is all such voters want. I recently found myself on a long car journey with a well-off, self-described “moderate”, Right-leaning boomer. Between discussions about the challenges facing Biden and the state of our investments — his certainly put mine to shame — he expressed a certain admiration for Haley, describing her as “attractive and well-spoken”, and sympathising with how she, much like Biden with the “loony Left”, is in a sympathetically “tough spot”. As our conversation continued, it became evident that his support was superficial, rooted more in her persona than her policies. He couldn’t quite articulate what she stood for — and indeed was even confused about her valuable “diversity”, wrongly thinking she was Native American — only that she seemed like a palatable alternative to the more polarising figures in the GOP.

In a field of candidates which includes the sharp-minded Ramaswamy and the policy-focused DeSantis, the vacuum of Nikki Haley raises critical questions about the nature of modern political leadership. Is the GOP electorate content with a candidate whose silhouette mirrors their own, or do they yearn for a leader with a steadfast compass, unwavering in conviction? As Haley treads her way through this carefully choreographed ballet, one wonders if the larger audience — the vast expanse of the American electorate — will tire of a performance that recalls similarly unsavoury and power-hungry Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, who never met a regional accent she wouldn’t affect.

Will Haley somehow find her place in a fixed orbit around the bright orange sun that is Trump, or will she be consigned back to the storeroom closet as her party’s ultimate empty suit? Only time, and the ballots, will tell. In the meantime, the curtain continues to rise on the 2024 primaries, and the spotlight is unforgiving.


Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work

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Pietro Leva
Pietro Leva
6 months ago

No. There aren’t any true hues anywhere with Haley. Beneath the empty suit there is only a weathervane.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago
Reply to  Pietro Leva

You say that as if its a bad thing. Being “everything to everybody” is a very useful political talent.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Maybe in terms of getting elected, but once in power that’talent’ becomes a total liability

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
6 months ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Getting elected is all that matters these days. With it comes the power to enrich yourself and your allies.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

….or indeed the power to govern.

Pietro Leva
Pietro Leva
6 months ago

It is a mystery why DeSantis and Haley failed to understand that their best shot at 2028 ran through being Trump’s vice president in 2024.
Their egos and hedging their political bets did them in. Now their only hope for 2024 is something happens to Trump, and for 2028 they should hope his supporters forget the attacks of 2024.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago
Reply to  Pietro Leva

I think Haley understands that being Trump’s Veep is an effective way to the White House. She might not even have to wait until 2028. Trump’s “Big Mac” diet is sure to do him in at some point.

J Bryant
J Bryant
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Agreed. I think Vivek Ramaswamy has also been playing that game since the beginning of his campaign, although he denies it.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I couldn’t imagine Trump picking Ramaswamy (or even De Santis, for that matter) as a running mate. Running mates are picked to give the campaign something the nominee doesn’t have. In Haley’s case, she is “female” and “from a Southern State” (I know Trump resides in Florida now, but he is still the quintessential New Yorker). De Santis is a pale wannabe Trump copy without affability or relatability. Ramaswamy is smarter than Trump, but that is unlikely to be something that Trump would appreciate.

Rob N
Rob N
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Disagree about DeSantis. Seemingly he is pale and does not have Trump’s mania, zeal or fire but he does have skill, honest opinions, ability to build bridges and the wisdom to know what to fight. If it was not that we are in a fight to save civilisation against lunatics which requires a messianic figure I would much prefer DeSantis.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
6 months ago
Reply to  Rob N

I agree. Also DeSantis is much smarter than Trump and it shows in his real achievements in Florida, but he sadly misses charisma.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago

DeSantis shows what happens to charisma when it is left out of the refrigerator too long.

T Bone
T Bone
6 months ago
Reply to  Rob N

DeSantis is so obviously the best candidate in either party that it’s silly. I believe he’s still dealt with more dollars worth of negative attack ads than every candidate…combined.

This is for a guy that’s considered the 4th or 5th most likely candidate to become President. How is that even possible?

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

If you had to sum DeSantis up in one word, that word would be “creepy”. That isn’t a good thing in a politician.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago
Reply to  Rob N

DeSantis is entirely unrelatable though. How many other politicians can’t seem to manage to smile without looking creepy when they do so?

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
6 months ago
Reply to  Pietro Leva

DeSantis could pull it off but Haley is getting a strong hell no right now. She is pretty much seen as another Bush but in heels.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I’m not sure why being a “Bush in heels” is a bad thing. At least she has a personality, and seems sane, which distinguishes her from a number of other candidates.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

A lot of folks remember us getting into what turned into never ending war under Bush, even if one of the two responses was somewhat justified. A reaction after 9/11 was to be expected. For it to become a dual-front, 20-year effort was not, especially one in which no one knew what ‘victory’ was and, as such, no one would be able to recognize it if it was achieved.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I agree that Gulf 1 and Gulf 2 were not handled well. Saddam should have been deposed after Gulf 1 (although I appreciate the political issues associated with that being done). Gulf 2 should have just involved flaming Saddam and his cronies, installing someone slightly less bad (who knew what side their bread was buttered on) and getting out.

Mary Bruels
Mary Bruels
6 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Bingo
she is another Bush like neocon who has never met a war she doesn’t want to fight. There is no there with her. I am a registered Republican who cannot vote for her if she is the GOP candidate because I don’t know what she really stands for, other than power.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
6 months ago
Reply to  Mary Bruels

That is what differentiates R’s and the D’s. The D’s tend to stand by their candidate. The R’s are notorious for pecking their own candidate to bits. The main result is that the R’s sit on the bench and complain about what’s happening whilst the D’s pillage.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago

To me, everything in the article suggests that Haley is an extremely effective politician.

J Guy
J Guy
6 months ago

I don’t think Oliver Bateman has actually listened to Haley speak, criticizing Republican overspending and excess as much as the Democrats. She’s the only one who seems willing to address the spending and entitlement excesses left to Americans by a generation of sociopaths.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
6 months ago

It’s worth saying that a huckster like Bolton will go and work for Trump again and say nothing about Iran there. At best he will cancel the Democrats’ horrible reheated nuclear deal but Trump will do that all by himself.
In contrast, Ms Haley has no interest in Iran. However, she may be the last generation of neocons to give full military support to Israel. The question is what will replace this cross-party position?
In any case, I would not like to see her VP as a GOP victory will hopefully see a peace deal for the Ukraine in 2025.

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
6 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

You mean you think it is a problem that she will not urge Ukraine to capitulate to Russia?

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

By “peace deal”, you mean “Russia completes its invasion, and commits war crimes to its heart’s content”?

Emily Riedel
Emily Riedel
6 months ago

I do not understand this woman’s appeal. All I see is a war-loving neocon whose only principal is a love of corportate dollars.

Gayle Rosenthal
Gayle Rosenthal
6 months ago
Reply to  Emily Riedel

I agree with you … and would have to hold my nose to vote for her because I recognize that neocons and corporates are here to stay.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago

“she chastised Trump for his response to the Capitol riots, yet strongly opposed his second impeachment (“Give the man a break”)”.
This doesn’t seem strange to me. It shows she has a sense of proportion.

Gayle Rosenthal
Gayle Rosenthal
6 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Thank you ! This may be the one authentic moment I can find. Well, that and her defense of Israel as UN Ambassador. I find it hard to like her and put my faith in her. She seems very “made in America” and I am not sure why that bothers me. I don’t and didn’t like HRC either. I don’t think I have an issue with female leaders because there are many I do like. But she does seem corporate-like, and not statesman -like. I think maybe it’s because she seems patronizing of the little people rather than having their backs, like Trump does. For all his money and mouth, I like him and trust him. When he says vote for me because I know the corrupt inside and I’ll work against it, I believe him. With Haley, not so much.

Victoria Cooper
Victoria Cooper
6 months ago

Beautifully put. “made in America”. It’s not the America bit that’s troublesome but the “made”. She is fabricated. No one would want to lean on her.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
6 months ago

Let’s not act as if something unprecedented is happening here. Haley’s periodic shape-shifting mirrors that of virtually everyone else who has ever sought high office. It’s what they do. At heart, Haley is a creature of the establishment. She has seen how the sausage is made, she has benefited from its making. Haley is not a caricature of the center-right candidate; she’s practically right out of central casting, reliably parroting the same talking points that the likes of Romney, Graham, and a host of other political lifers repeat on command.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
6 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Well said! And if this author is writing about it, we know for sure it’s complete parody.

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
6 months ago

Hayley supposedly said that America needs Israel more than the other way round. Now, if you asked me to choose between Israel or Palestine, I’d opt for Israel. But Haley’s statement is so false that she either has an extremely poor grasp of history and/or is just a blatant panderer.

John Pade
John Pade
6 months ago

If she and DeSantis are all the Republicans have to offer, we’re in trouble. Last night they made it look like four more years of Biden might not be the worst thing for America.
I don’t believe it’s flaws in DeSantis or Haley that have created this outcome even though they were plain to see. Rather, it’s the extended, poorly planned, and horribly produced series of debates the party put together that is to blame.
No one seemed to consider that a long series of monthly debates would eventually spiral into a circular firing squad. That it would wound and diminish the whole field, the survivor most of all.
It took less than one round of questions for each debate to become a food fight: no order, let alone manners, no adult to keep the kids in order, only (mostly failed) gotchas and incoherence all over the place.
What could an independent voter think of the candidates and the Republican Party, assuming he had the grit to listen more than five minutes?
Reliance to the point of dependence on staff to negatively research opponents and contort whatever they found, inability to clearly state their own positions and goals without interspersing them with random attacks on their rivals, to explain their accomplishments and the challenges they faced and why that experience prepared them to be president: this is what the debates didn’t do.
The debates were a very poor reflection on the Republican Party and a great disservice to the candidates and the American people.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago
Reply to  John Pade

It is easy to see why Trump went nowhere near them.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago
Reply to  John Pade

The candidates are a poor reflection of the Republican Party and a huge disservice to the American people. I’ve been so disappointed with the offerings from the GOP that I left the Party in 2016 and became “undeclared”. You’d think that with all the choices one would be a shining example of decorum, honesty, leadership, statesmanship, integrity, global political knowledge, supporting the Constitution, and supportive of our military, but nooooo.

Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
6 months ago

Saw here somewhere described as a MIC-lobbyist disguised as an ageing MILF. That is a lot of acronyms in one description. Her finances are truly baffling on an LBJ-scale.

Brian Lemon
Brian Lemon
6 months ago

Choose any political candidate you don’t like and you can write an essay justifying your dislike. These people are politicians who (stealing a movie line here) will kiss your baby while stealing her lollipop. Show me a candidate who does not behave like a politician and I’ll show you someone who won’t win an election.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
6 months ago

In politics, one must be all things to all people, while doing the things that matter most. It’s a delicate dance, but the one who can do it well, will prosper.

Christopher
Christopher
6 months ago

Why all the fuss, Trump will be the nominee.