Los Angeles Politics

Nikki Haley doesn’t have what it takes to change Trump’s Republican Party

“New” isn’t necessarily better. Sometimes it’s not even new.

Rarely have those truisms been more true than in the last two weeks, when Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Nikki Haley offered themselves as exemplars of “a new generation” of Republican leadership.

Sanders, the truth-challenged former Trump press secretary turned Arkansas governor, did it Feb. 7 in the Republican rebuttal to President Biden’s State of the Union speech. Three times she said “it’s time” for new leadership, and she noted that, at 40, she was half as old as Biden, the nation’s oldest president.

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A week later, 51-year-old Haley, former South Carolina governor and one-time Trump critic turned loyal Cabinet member, became the Republican Party’s second candidate for president, declaring herself a new-generation leader in a video Tuesday and at a campaign rally Wednesday.

“America is not past our prime. It’s just that our politicians are past theirs,” she told her supporters, in what was one of the biggest applause lines at her announcement event in Charleston, S.C.

The ostensible target for both women was 80-year-old Biden. Neither mentioned that their former boss, the only other Republican candidate for president, is, 76 — Biden’s contemporary. Also unspoken? Donald Trump’s very name (OK, Haley mentioned him once, in passing, for having picked her as his United Nations ambassador).

And that’s the problem. When Republicans only implicitly distance themselves from Trump, avoiding even saying his name, it’s a giveaway: These self-proclaimed new generation Republicans offer the same old Trumpism.

Age has little to do with the party’s problems. 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. What the party — and country — sorely needs are Republican leaders of any age who will explicitly disavow Trump and all he stands for: undisguised authoritarianism; election denial; racial, cultural and political divisiveness; global isolation (except when it comes to murderous dictators, especially those willing to invest in the family grifting, er, business).

It shouldn’t be hard for any American to condemn the only president in history who refused to accept the voters’ verdict and then sought to block the peaceful transfer of power — unless you’re a Republican politician.

About 7 in 10 Republicans tell pollsters that Trump has been a positive force for the party, and another poll showed him with “a lock” on about 30% of likely voters in the 2024 Republican primaries and caucuses — perhaps enough for the nomination in a crowded race.

If renouncing Trump is political suicide in the short term for Republican pols, in the longer term, failing to do so is likely to be suicidal for the entire party.

Trumpism has already been a loser in the 2018, 2020 and 2022 elections. What’s more, as Haley pointedly noted in her announcements, Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential contests (another of her implicit-only digs at Trump, the popular-vote loser in the most recent two of those elections).

Yet neither Haley nor Sanders suggested anything resembling a fresh path, let alone a policy agenda, in their high-profile appearances.

Sanders was especially Trumpy, shockingly so given the blame accorded the former president for the party’s disappointing midterm election results. It was her assignment, in the modern tradition of State of the Union addresses, to criticize Biden and the Democrats. But she did so in culture warriors’ code, as if she were speaking only to pro-Trumpers in red states and not to a national audience including the swing voters her party so desperately needs.

Sanders boasted that in her first acts as governor she’d signed orders banning “CRT” and “indoctrination” in schools and eliminating “the derogatory term ‘Latinx’” from state documents. (As my colleague Gustavo Arellano wrote, Latinx is not derogatory, and making it a wedge issue to appeal to some Latino voters is “the last, best chance for conservatives who have no other ideas.”)

In a feat of projection, she blamed Democrats for the nation’s culture wars and claimed “every day we are told we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags and worship their false idols.” Huh?

And Sanders had the gall to damn Biden as “the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is” — again, huh? — when she’s silent on Trump’s incitement of an actual mob that assaulted Congress to try to overturn Biden’s election.

Haley was all breezy platitudes, without Sanders’ bile. Yet Haley’s Reaganite optimism rings hollow without exorcising the Trumpian negativity. At Haley’s rally, the prayer was offered by Pastor John Hagee, an 82-year-old right-wing televangelist whose record of alleged antisemitism and homophobia caused Sen. John McCain to reject his presidential endorsement in 2008, and she was introduced by Rep. Ralph Norman, her 69-year-old fellow South Carolinian who texted the Trump White House to impose “Marshall Law!” to block Biden’s inauguration.

In 2016 Haley backed two Trump rivals, condemned him for refusing to publicly oppose the Ku Klux Klan and said he represented “everything I taught my children not to do in kindergarten.” Then she became his U.N. ambassador. After the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, she lamented, “His actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history.” But nine months later, she told the Wall Street Journal, “We need him in the Republican Party. I don’t want us to go back to the days before Trump.”

Last year, she said she wouldn’t run for president if Trump did. But now she’s doing so. She’s a first-rate flip-flopper but not, it appears, an anti-Trump Republican.

And that’s too bad. But nothing new.


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