Why Republicans keep invoking a 'new generation' instead of dissing Trump

Understanding the hot new conservative buzzword

Nikki Haley and Donald Trump
(Image credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

When former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley gave her first official address as a contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, she made a conspicuous choice to invoke the importance of age as a key factor in her decision to run. "We are more than ready for a new generation to lead us into the future," she proclaimed at one point, later urging followers to stop "trusting politicians from the 20th century."

Haley, the second Republican to formally enter the GOP primary race, went even further, calling for "mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old" in an address peppered liberally with attacks on President Biden, who will be just weeks away from turning 82 when polls close in 2024. Haley's repeated invocations of generational change and geriatric mental fitness were clearly intended in part to draw a distinction between herself as a member of Gen X, and Biden, the oldest person to ever assume the presidency.

Largely unmentioned in her remarks, however, was the man who currently stands are her sole official rival for next year's Republican nomination: Former President Donald Trump, under whom Haley served as U.N. Ambassador for the first year of his administration. And while politicians have been paying optimistic lipservice to "new generations" of leadership for years, Haley's attempt at casting herself as unburdened by the past differs in the context of the current Republican party — a party struggling with whether to distance itself from Trump, and trying to calibrate how to do so without jeopardizing a core bloc of voters for whom the former president is the GOP. Here's everything you need to know about the delicate balance:

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Who else is attempting to walk this tightrope?

Consider Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whom the GOP has made a concerted effort to push to the fore of the party. In her official Republican rebuttal to Biden's recent State of the Union address, Sanders invoked many of the same age-centered arguments as Haley, while similarly eliding any overt mention of Trump, in whose administration she became a household name as press secretary. Like Haley, Sanders called for a "new generation" of leadership, and named Biden directly as "the oldest president in American history." And like Haley, Sanders' careful decision not to refer to Trump by name was seen by some as an overt effort to position herself — and by extension, the GOP at large — as the inheritors of Trumpism without Trump. "She's supposed to carry Republicans beyond Trump when she so carefully carries Trump inside her," New York Times columnist Frank Bruni quipped following Sanders' remarks.

Take as well Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who, while undeclared for 2024, is widely seen as one of Trump's chief rivals for the GOP nomination. Although DeSantis has largely refrained from responding to, and engaging with, Trump's early attempts at slinging mud at his presumptive political adversary, he has nevertheless made unsubtle feints in an early proxy war. The most overt instance of this came in late January, amidst a contentious intra-party battle over the leadership of the Republican National Committee. Although sitting RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel ultimately retained her position, DeSantis surprised many when he lauded Harmeet Dhillon, McDaniel's main competitor, as offering "some new blood in the RNC." In doing so, he became the highest profile backer of the woman angling to defeat McDaniel, whom Trump himself had worked to install in 2017, and whom he had publicly re-endorsed for the job as recently as 2020 (while Trump did not wade into this most recent fight himself, he did go out of his way to endorse McDaniel-supporter Joe Gruters for RNC treasurer, and reportedly offered to endorse McDaniel in private). As Salon's Samaa Khullar observed, "in his effort to boost Dhillon before Friday's vote, DeSantis sought to blame the GOP's recent setbacks on McDaniel, and perhaps indirectly on former President Donald Trump, who installed her as party chair in the first place."

In fact, the very venue in which DeSantis made his remarks — in an interview with Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk — was, to Trump at least, a sign that the comments were ultimately aimed at him. In their article on the allegedly fraying relationship between Trump and TPUSA, NBC News' Allan Smith and Vaughn Hillyard wrote that "Trump noticed Kirk starting to ally himself with DeSantis in his effort to shake up the Republican National Committee. [...] Kirk was vocal in wanting to oust the incumbent chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, who was originally handpicked by Trump for the job."

Will it resonate with voters... and with Trump?

That's the million-dollar question the non-Trump faction of the party is gambling on. In a recent piece detailing the nascent effort within Republican circles to prevent Trump from winning the party nomination, Politico's David Freedlander points out that it may be in Trump's interest not to overreact at the barbs from Haley and others, since he benefits from their staying (or, in the case of DeSantis — joining) in the race:

Trump seems to recognize how the prospect of a crowded field would help him, keeping quiet even as some of his former closest aides consider their own campaigns, and training his fire instead on Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who is leading him in some polls. Trump has been reluctant to take the bait as his former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, taunts her former boss by calling for a "new generation" of leadership. Trump is Trump, so he has hit back occasionally, but has also said publicly that Haley "should do it," a sign that, as former chair of the South Carolina Republican Party Katon Dawson put it, "Trump has a solid 31 [percent]. And if it's a big field a solid 31 can carry you to the nomination. The only way to defeat him is if some of these folks team up."

That Trump has not taken Haley's bait, but still hit back so forcefully against DeSantis, a man who hasn't even officially declared he's running, is in this context about the latter's beating him in certain polls, rather than fracturing a crowded field below Trump's "solid 31."

In Sanders' and Haley's cases, only insinuating at Trump in generational terms without actually naming him is "a giveaway" according to the Los Angeles Times' Jackie Calmes. "Age has little to do with the party's problems," Calmes points out. "Consider that its younger stars include Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, 48; Elise Stefanik of New York, 38; and Matt Gaetz of Florida, 40, far-right Trump sycophants all." Haley and Sanders' attempt to have it both ways, then, is in service of covering up for the fact that neither has "suggested anything resembling a fresh path, let alone a policy agenda, in their high-profile appearances." In trying to hamfistedly portray themselves as harbingers of an age in which the GOP is Trumpism-without-the-Trump, they have instead failed at both being of and post-Trump.

However, whether that dynamic resonates with voters remains to be seen, as the GOP primary field begins to take shape, and Trump himself starts campaigning in earnest. At Haley's campaign launch in South Carolina, rally attendees echoed her call for a new generation of leadership, making explicit the connection with Trump that she herself left implicit. "I came up with Trump. I've grown up, and I think the Republican Party has grown up," one supporter told The Washington Examiner. "We love Trump. We will love what he brought to the table. We needed to ask those questions. It's good." But, he reiterated, it's time for the former president to "pass the torch."

To Haley, Sanders, DeSantis, and others working to move the GOP into a post-Trump era, that's exactly the response they're probably hoping for. For Trump, the challenge now is if he can make a compelling case to Republicans for why a "new generation" of leadership might not necessarily be a better one.

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