Don’t call Nikki Haley a moderate. It’s not even a label she wants for herself.
Haley has been a presidential candidate for less than two weeks. But the battle is already being cast in the media as one that pits her in one lane against hard-liners like former President Trump — and, once he enters the race, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — in another.
Trump and DeSantis purportedly represent the right-wing, populist MAGA wing of the GOP. Haley has been cast as some kind of centrist.
She has previously been able to “appeal to [Trump’s] more moderate critics,” according to CNN. She is “a more moderate alternative to the ex-president” according to Forbes. Parts of her message will “play well with moderate suburban women voters,” according to a Council on Foreign Relations blogger.
The last part may be true — but not because of Haley’s policies. Her potentially distinctive appeal resides in the fact that she has a temperamental evenness which the former president clearly lacks, and favors a tone that is conversational rather than combative.
This hardly makes her a moderate. Her positions are not those of centrist figures currently mulling a run, like former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Nor is she so direct a critic of Trump as another possible contender, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R).
In her stump speeches, her affable demeanor goes hand-in-hand with staunchly conservative proposals and themes.
At a Tuesday evening appearance in Marion, Iowa, covered by The Hill, the thrust of her arguments was in lockstep with today’s right-wing, populist GOP.
On immigration, “we need to seal off the border, we need to go back to the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy,” she said — especially now that “every state in America has become a border state.”
On crime, the main problem was that law enforcement officers “don’t feel like anybody’s got their backs.”
On education, sexuality and “wokeness,” the controversial Florida bill backed by DeSantis, which bars the teaching of any material related to gender or sexual orientation before the third grade, “doesn’t even go far enough” according to Haley.
“Parents,” she said, “are the ones that should be teaching their kids about anything to do with gender, lifestyle and everything else.”
She also delivered standard but fiery jabs at Democrats. She accused President Biden of stumbling through a “debacle” in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and of having permitted “a national embarrassment” in the shape of the recent Chinese spy balloon.
Perhaps most controversially of all, Haley defended her proposal for mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over the age of 75 in unusually personal terms.
Responding to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who had accused her the previous night of “nothing more than old-fashioned ageism”, Haley told the Iowa crowd that Sanders, 81, is “exactly the reason we need it.”
Amid laughter in the venue, she went on to assail two California Democrats, 89-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein and 84-year-old Rep. Maxine Waters in similar terms.
Haley’s backers don’t even speak of her as a moderate — perhaps because the label is likely a ticket to defeat in today’s GOP.
Some note that her political roots lie with the Tea Party movement that helped propel her to a come-from-behind victory in the GOP primary when she first ran to become South Carolina’s governor.
Others cite her immigration record while holding that office, including mandating the use of E-Verify by employers.
The pro-Haley voices contend that her personal style can help her expand the appeal of staunch conservatism in a way that the darker rhetoric and more belligerent stances of figures like Trump and DeSantis cannot.
That is a thesis that will be severely tested. Polling has been sparse since Haley officially launched her campaign, but she had previously been trailing way behind Trump and DeSantis in polls.
The jury is still out as to whether today’s GOP primary electorate, which often thrills to the culture war combat favored by Trump in particular, really wants a kinder face.
But there is clearly some kind of constituency for what Haley is offering.
Jeff Simoneau, a project manager, Marion resident and self-described conservative, told The Hill before Tuesday’s campaign stop, “I think she is right what we need — some fresh young faces in the Republican Party.”
For Simoneau, the differences Haley offered to Trump were a central part of her appeal.
“Her personality is in stark contrast to the prior president’s, but the polices were really good [under Trump],” he said.
The 45th president’s achievements, in Simoneau’s view, were “overshadowed by the personality. And that is what we don’t need right now.”
Are there many other Republicans seeking Trump-like policies in a very non-Trump persona?
Maybe such voters will simply go to DeSantis.
But, for now, Haley is out there on the trial making her case as the sole alternative.
Maybe she’s wrong and her campaign will fizzle, as her many doubters predict.
But Haley has been underestimated before — and it could be happening again.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.
2024 GOP primary