Opinion

Nikki Haley is plotting a loopy path to the presidency

If you want to know how the Republican Party plans to salvage its electoral prospects in the wake of Trump's presidency, look no further than Haley's new book

Nikki Haley.

Nikki Haley wants you to know two things: First, she is very loyal to President Trump. Second, she feels kind of bad about the things he does.

If that sounds incoherent, well, too bad. Those contradictions — on display in her new memoir, With All Due Respect — contain her road map for becoming president.

Public impeachment hearings against Trump start this week in Washington, D.C., but Haley, Trump's former U.N. ambassador, pretty clearly is already looking ahead to the 2024 presidential election. If you want to know how the Republican Party plans to salvage its electoral prospects in the wake of Trump's presidency, when women and suburban voters have fled the GOP en masse, look no further than Haley's book.

There are two things that are likely to be true for a few years after Donald Trump leaves the presidency. The first is that the GOP base will remain essentially Trumpist, and Trump himself will probably remain a kingmaker within the party for the foreseeable future. The second is that the broader electorate — which has never really liked Trump — might well reject any GOP candidate too closely associated with him.

Haley's game plan? Split the difference.

Her book — as reported on Sunday afternoon by The Washington Post — suggests she plans a careful balancing act, simultaneously demonstrating her loyalty to Trump and her independence from him.

The question is whether it is truly possible to do both things at once.

She accomplishes the first half of the task by rebuking two of her colleagues, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then-Chief of Staff John Kelly. According to the Post, Haley writes that she disdained their efforts to circumvent some of the president's decisions — while she remained steadfast in her loyalty to the boss.

"It should've been, 'Go tell the president what your differences are, and quit if you don't like what he's doing,'" Haley told CBS News. "But to undermine a president is really a very dangerous thing. And it goes against the Constitution, and it goes against what the American people want. And it was offensive."

The problem is that Haley herself provides several examples of the president's questionable judgment. Many of these incidents are known — Trump's equivocating between racists and anti-racists in the aftermath of violence in Charlottesville is probably the best known — but Haley wants us to know that while she was silent publicly, she was firm with the president behind closed doors.

"A leader's words matter in these situations. And the president's words had been hurtful and dangerous," Haley wrote. "I picked up the phone and called the president."

In the book — and in interviews promoting the book — Haley attempts this balancing act over and over again. She doesn't always approve of the president. His opponents, though, are somehow always worse.

Should Trump have said that Democratic women of color should "go back" to where they came from? No, Haley says, but she understands why he did so. "I can also appreciate where he's coming from, from the standpoint of, 'Don't bash America, over and over and over again, and not do something to try and fix it,'" she said.

Should the president have pressured Ukraine to investigate his political opponents? No, Haley says, but neither is the act impeachable. "So, do I think it's not good practice to talk to foreign governments about investigating Americans? Yes," she said, in a bit of a grammatical loopty-loop. "Do I think the president did something that warrants impeachment? No, because the aid flowed."

One key test of whether Haley's "yes, but" approach to defending Trump is whether Trump himself allows it. The president hasn't exactly shown himself to be fond of subordinates who are loyal but independent. Indeed, on Sunday he was on Twitter, urging Republicans to declare his communications to be "perfect" — better than merely unimpeachable. "Loyal but independent" might well be insufficiently loyal in Trump's eyes. If he does play the kingmaker role going forward, that could be a problem for Haley.

Her two-pronged approach may well offer Republicans their best chance at winning elections in the post-Trump era, however — unless the party decides to go all-in on voter suppression. Successful politicians often find themselves trying to be all things to all people.

Nikki Haley, it appears, is getting ready to put that proposition to the ultimate test.

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