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Haley's jokes fuel speculation over her future
02:19 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

On Thursday night, soon-to-be-former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley spoke to an annual gathering of media and political types in New York City. While her speech was primary defined by its jabs – at herself and others, including Elizabeth Warren – the most important and telling moment of the speech came when Haley turned serious at its conclusion.

Here it is:

“In our toxic political life, I’ve heard some people in both parties describe their opponents as enemies or evil. In America, our political opponents are not evil. In South Sudan, where rape is routinely used as a weapon of war, that is evil. In Syria, where the dictator uses chemical weapons to murder innocent children, that is evil. In North Korea, where American student Otto Warmbier was tortured to death, that was evil. In the last two years, I’ve seen true evil. We have some serious political differences here at home. But our opponents are not evil, they’re just our opponents.”

It’s no big secret who Haley is talking about without naming here: Donald Trump.

“I know fellow Americans that are evil,” Trump said in the midst of the confirmation fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. “Are you saying that we shouldn’t say that a fellow American is evil? I’ve known some fellow Americans that are pretty evil.”

The President routinely uses the word “evil” to describe those who he believes are working to subvert his goals – particularly as it related to Kavanaugh’s confirmation. “These are really evil people,” he said of Kavanaugh opponents at a rally in Mississippi recently. At a news conference, Trump said that opposition to Kavanaugh was “being perpetuated by some very evil people – some of them are Democrats, I must say.”

It’s impossible – like, literally impossible – given that recent context to think that Haley is referring to anyone other than her almost-ex-boss. (Haley is formally leaving the administration at the end of the year.) And it’s equally impossible to think that a politician as savvy as Haley doesn’t know how those words will be taken.

So, what’s she up to?

Remember that when Haley and Trump held their press availability to announce she was leaving, she insisted she wouldn’t be running in 2020 against Trump. She said nothing about running in 2024 when the Republican nomination will be open – either after a second Trump term or the 1st term of whichever Democrat beats him in 2020. THAT is where Haley is looking – and THAT is what her comments on Thursday night are all about.

Haley has done her service to the Trump wing of the party. Two years worth (almost). And, somewhat amazingly, she emerged almost entirely unscathed: Trump (and, therefore, his supporters) like her and her overall approval ratings with the general public are also quite good. She’s unique in that regard – someone who has managed to remain popular with the hardcore Trump base and the rest of the country that is, to put it mildly, not a fan of the President.

What Haley needs to do in the next few years – besides find ways to stay a part of the national political conversation – is continue to refine the idea that while she was proud to work for Trump – and embraces some of his policies – she is not a carbon copy of him. She is someone who doesn’t look kindly on his bullying, his incivility and his willingness to weaponize race for political gains. (Haley was outspoken in the wake of the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 – making much stronger statements of condemnation than Trump on the matter.)

Haley knows that when Trump leaves, the obvious inheritor of his political operation – and supporters – will be Vice President Mike Pence. But, she also knows that there are lots and lots of Republicans who are already done with Trump and, if they aren’t right now, likely will be by 2020 and certainly by 2024. Running as a Trump clone may not, therefore, be a recipe for success. Neither, however, will running as the “establishment” candidate – given the ongoing animosity from the base of the GOP to its party leaders (not named Trump).

Her path to national office then is to cast herself as a hybrid – a little bit Trump, a little bit establishment but all herself and totally unique. That’s the process Haley began on Thursday night in New York.