For Nikki Haley, Opportunity Knocks Again

From a Wall Street Journal story by Barton Swaim headlined “For Nikki Haley, Opportunity Knocks Again”:

You might say Nikki Haley has an exceptional sense of timing, or that she possesses the most valuable political gift of all: luck. That’s not to diminish the former South Carolina governor’s political skill or competence; it’s to point out that at crucial moments in her career, things have gone her way—either because she took the right opportunities at the right time, or because those opportunities fell into her lap, or both. Probably both.

Things are trending her way again. In February, when Ms. Haley announced her campaign for the presidency, not much happened. Six months later at the first GOP presidential debate, she acquitted herself well by all accounts. Then, after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, the nation, and the Republican Party, turned its attention to global affairs.

Ms. Haley served as United Nations ambassador during the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency, giving her more foreign-policy experience than any Republican candidate except Mike Pence, who last weekend suspended his campaign. Another capable performance at the third GOP debate on Wednesday night—in which the front-runner, Mr. Trump, again isn’t participating—would likely move things further in her direction.

It’s not simply a matter of her résumé. Ms. Haley, 51, is the only candidate in the GOP race who can articulate a hawkish Reaganite vision of global American leadership. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, by far the most accomplished executive in the race, zigs and zags on matters of foreign policy. Vivek Ramaswamy enunciates a cerebral albeit less-than-coherent version of Mr. Trump’s semi-isolationism. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott speaks with conviction only about domestic affairs.

That leaves Ms. Haley. “A strong America doesn’t start wars,” she said on Monday at the South Carolina State House in Columbia. “A strong America prevents wars, and we have to start being a strong and proud America again.”

Ms. Haley polls second only to Mr. Trump in New Hampshire and South Carolina. The latest data out of Iowa, where Mr. DeSantis has spent the bulk of his time and money, has Ms. Haley tied with the Florida governor. A third-place finish for him would likely end his campaign.

At the State House, where she filed officially as a candidate in the Feb. 24 primary, Ms. Haley was introduced by three allies who’d backed her since her improbable run for governor in 2010: state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, state Sen. Tom Davis and U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman. In her speech, Ms. Haley called them “three very lucky charms,” and said they don’t care about polls but “about being in the right place at the right time.”

One of them, Mr. Davis, served as chief of staff to Ms. Haley’s predecessor, Gov. Mark Sanford, for whom I also worked from 2007 to 2011. Mr. Sanford cared immensely about policies and the principles behind them; Ms. Haley, less so. She often seemed more interested in boosterism, relentlessly touting economic-development announcements and requiring cabinet agencies to answer the phone with the words “It’s a great day in South Carolina.”

I asked Mr. Davis what he’d seen in her back in 2010 and why he supported her presidential bid now. “There’s something about her demeanor, her confidence, her ability to communicate,” he said, noting dryly that some of his Senate colleagues put a single-serve box of Lucky Charms on his desk after that press event. “There’s something you sense about her. It sounds trite to say it, but Nikki’s got ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ is. You can’t tie it back to a set of policies or a set of ideas. Ideas and policies, those excite me and you. But I can recognize a political talent when I see it. And there’s something about Nikki—she has this ability to size up a situation and capitalize on it. I think that’s executive leadership.

I might call it an ability to take advantage of political opportunity. In 2010 Ms. Haley, a state representative, was trailing a U.S. congressman, the attorney general and the lieutenant governor for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Sarah Palin, at the height of her short-lived political power, endorsed her in a rally on the State House grounds. I was there—it was an electrifying moment in a state that had never had a female governor. Ms. Haley shot to the top, made effective use of the girl-power theme without overdoing it, and never looked back. She won handily in November.

Ms. Haley is often and fairly credited with removing the Confederate flag from the State House grounds. A 1996 compromise had moved it from atop the capitol to a spot near a Confederate monument. After a white racist psychopath murdered nine black Charleston churchgoers in June 2015, the desire to remove the flag altogether was overwhelming and bipartisan. To her credit, the governor oversaw the ceremonies remembering the dead and removing the flag with dignity. She managed to show the right level of emotion without seeming to perform, and she called, appropriately, for the killer to be sentenced to death, which he was.

In her second memoir, “With All Due Respect,” Ms. Haley claims that she had come into office in 2011 intending to remove the flag. “I made a point, early on,” she writes, “of talking to both Republicans and Democrats to see if there was the political will to take the flag down once and for all. Members of both parties pushed back against the idea.” That may be true. But in an October 2014 debate—eight months before the murders—she dismissed her Democratic challenger’s suggestion that the flag be removed. “I spend a lot of my days on the phone with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state,” she said. “I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”

That her years as governor are remembered in the mainstream press entirely for bringing down the flag, and not at all for dismissing the idea of its removal, is a feat of good fortune no other Republican would have managed.

Two years into her second term, Donald Trump won the presidency. There seemed to be no chance she would take a spot in the new administration. In her response to Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union speech, she had included lines widely taken as a rebuke to the Republican front-runner: “Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. . . . Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume.”

But circumstances again fell her way. In early 2016 Mr. Trump—strange as it seems now—needed Republican endorsements. He attracted big crowds, but Republican officeholders kept their distance. In late January South Carolina’s Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster—then as now a well-liked politician who had been attorney general and GOP party chairman—endorsed him. After the election, the president-elect offered a favor to the lieutenant governor: He would appoint Gov. Haley to a position in the new administration and thereby elevate Mr. McMaster to the governor’s office.

In her memoir Ms. Haley reports that Mr. Trump offered to nominate her as secretary of state but that she declined for lack of experience. She took the U.N. ambassadorship instead—on the condition that the position have cabinet-level status.

Ms. Haley left that position, as she had left the governor’s office, two years earlier than anybody expected. She offered vague reasons, saying only that she looked forward to returning to the private sector. She then became that rara avis, a former Trump official who hadn’t fallen out with the president and thus become odious to his most fervent supporters. After the Capitol riots of Jan. 6, 2021, Ms. Haley criticized the lame-duck president, and he has returned the favor by calling her a “birdbrain.” Still, she’s never been the object of Trump-fan hatred in the way Mr. Pence or Bill Barr has.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his memoir sharply criticizes Ms. Haley for going straight to the president with her ideas and requests without so much as telling Mr. Pompeo, technically her superior. Former national security adviser John Bolton’s memoir portrays Ms. Haley as incompetent. Mr. Bolton quotes Mr. Pompeo as calling Ms. Haley “light as a feather.”

Watching her campaign in 2023, you wouldn’t call her a lightweight. At the Poor Boy’s Diner in Londonderry on Thursday, Ms. Haley addressed a packed house of what I took to be mostly blue-collar supporters and described the “unholy alliance” of Iran, Russia and China. She dealt with the subject as well as any 2024 presidential candidate has.

The smart-set consultant crowd, I imagine, would have advised her to save the national-security part of the talk for audiences of donors and think-tankers. She didn’t. She defended the policy of supporting Ukraine’s war effort—“an American ally invaded by a thug”—and noted that Taiwan, too, is aiding Ukraine, because the Taiwanese understand what a Ukrainian defeat would signal to China. She made the case that Israel’s war against Hamas is ours, too. “Now you’re hearing this question, ‘Do we fund Israel or do we fund Ukraine?’ Don’t get involved in that. You know why? America can never be so arrogant as to think we don’t need friends.” After the Oct. 7 attacks, she points out, “[Vladimir] Putin didn’t call [Benjamin] Netanyahu in Israel. He called and invited Hamas to Russia.”

Ms. Haley gave the crowd doses of cultural conservatism, too. She said “we have to end this national self-loathing that’s happening in our country.” On the military: We need to “tear down the bureaucracy, and for God’s sake stop the gender pronoun classes.” Her son is a senior in college, and she’s “tired of watching him write papers about things he doesn’t believe in, just to get an A.”

At the Poor Boy’s event, print journalists, having no need of cameras, were asked to watch Ms. Haley’s talk on a screen outside. But I didn’t come all the way to New Hampshire to watch a screen. I slipped inside and found a table with three older ladies enjoying French toast and coffee. Two said they were lifelong Democrats. One of those, Carol (she declined to give her last name), said she had found Ms. Haley’s TV ads “annoying and false” but watched the first GOP debate and was dazzled. “She was sharp, she was articulate. I said to myself, Where the hell has she been?”

After the talk, I asked the trio what they thought. All nodded slowly. “She’s tough,” Carol said.

One point of toughness on domestic issues strikes me as particularly adept. In the first Republican debate Ms. Haley criticized Republicans for joining Democrats in Covid-era blowout spending. At a town-hall event at Nashua’s Polish-American Club on Thursday night, she hit the point again, more sharply. She began by noting that federal public debt is nearly $34 trillion. “I would love to tell you that Biden did that to us,” she said, pronouncing the name with a faint drawl, BAH-den, which sounded normal to my Southern ears and perhaps charming to her New Hampshirite supporters. “It’s true,” she went on, “that BAH-den’s sent us down the path of socialism. But I’m gonna tell you the truth—our Republicans did it, too. Look at that $2.2 Covid stimulus bill they passed. . . . We now have 100 million Americans on Medicaid, 42 million on food stamps. That’s a third of our country.”

If Ms. Haley does make it to the White House, expect more of that. If politics is a team sport, as the political journalist Fred Barnes likes to say, Ms. Haley doesn’t play it. She spent much of her six years as governor exasperating lawmakers of both parties—often for good reason, as often not. Most of them, or anyway most of the ones whose statements might be taken seriously, will relate in some detail Ms. Haley’s imperious manner with them, but not on the record. It’s not hard to believe. Her imperiousness at the U.N. is what made her a terrific ambassador, the main job there being to shame and hector the bad-faith critics of the U.S. and its allies, especially Israel.

One who doesn’t mind going on the record is state Sen. Katrina Shealy of Lexington County, part of which Ms. Haley also represented in the House. Was Ms. Haley an effective governor? “Nikki was an effective governor,” Sen. Shealy said slowly, as if contemplating the question. “But she could have been more effective if she had sat down and talked with lawmakers. She didn’t like to do that. . . . Nikki didn’t have good relationships with legislators of either party.” Ms. Haley’s attitude to governing, according to Ms. Shealy, “is like, ‘I got into power and I don’t need you anymore—until I need you again.’ ”

She added: “And I don’t mean that in a bad way, ’cause Nikki and I are still friends.”

Ms. Haley has gotten some breaks over the years. But plainly it has taken skill to capitalize on those breaks and to develop a distinctive and fetching style of address. She is a far savvier and more serious politician than she was a decade ago. At the Nashua town hall a woman put a question to her about abortion. Ms. Haley defended the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade and argued that by giving the question back to the people, the justices had made it impossible for one side to impose its will on the other by fiat. She emphasized the need for compromise. She drew applause—no easy feat for a Southern pro-lifer in front of a Northeastern audience that almost certainly included people who regretted the overturning of Roe.

“If she wants something bad enough,” Ms. Shealy told me about Ms. Haley, “she’ll have it.” At this point in the race I wouldn’t bet against her having it. And I doubt she’ll need any lucky charms.

Barton Swaim is an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal.

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