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Nikki Haley says this is worse than Covid. See Keilar's response
05:50 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley is not a moderate.

Say that now – and rinse and repeat until the 2024 Republican presidential primaries begin. Whether or not former President Donald Trump runs again, there will be inevitable talk of potential Republican candidates who might bring the party closer to the center by championing the importance of governance and the need to establish a big tent if the GOP is going to remain viable long-term.

Whenever this conversation kicks off, the former South Carolina governor quickly rises to the top of the list of people who could fit that profile.

But our memory of Haley and where she stands can be deceptive. As the party has become more extreme, Haley has repeatedly aligned herself with the former president – when it is expedient.

On Tuesday night, Haley spoke at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library as part of its “A Time for Choosing Speaker Series,” which addresses the current state of the Republican Party. It’s telling that Haley used this opportunity to fall back on red meat rhetoric.

She said that the US was in the middle of “a clash of civilizations” and slammed President Joe Biden’s leadership, saying he “thinks retreat is a sign of strength.” Going further, the former diplomat flexed her deeply partisan muscle, saying that Democrats didn’t believe in America anymore.

Haley went on to add that the fact people are “plagued by self-doubt or even by hatred of America” was a “pandemic much more damaging than any virus.” In other words, being critical of our past missteps is worse than a pandemic that has killed more than 700,000 Americans.

Alluding to the Black Lives Matter protests and the debate over systemic racism, Haley said progressives are denying the “massive progress” the US has made in becoming a more “colorblind” society, later adding that having lived the American story, she can attest that it is “not a racist country.”

It’s also notable how she has responded to January 6 and the effort to overturn the 2020 election that culminated in that horrible day. In the weeks after the attack on the US Capitol, Haley expressed her “disgust” at the way Trump treated Vice President Mike Pence and said the former president “lost any sort of political viability he was going to have.”

She also said, “We need to acknowledge he let us down. He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And now we can’t let that ever happen again.”

On Tuesday, however, she called Trump a friend and said, “We need him in the Republican Party. I don’t want us to go back to the days before Trump.”

Her speech should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following her career. When she was governor, she called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the South Carolina State House in 2015 – but only after the white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine Black parishioners in Charleston. In 2016, she endorsed Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in the Republican primary. After Trump won the nomination, Haley said she wasn’t a fan, though she publicly acknowledged that she would vote for him in the election.

Of course, she was named the US ambassador to the UN just weeks after the 2016 election. We can’t forget that Haley served two years in an administration that embodied the radicalism of the Republican Party as it shattered basic norms of governance, stoked polarized divisions, undermined America’s relationships overseas and played to some of the very worst instincts of the nation.

While she herself often tried to steer clear of the biggest controversies of Trump’s presidency, she should shoulder some responsibility for the harms his administration inflicted on the country.

When she left her post in late 2018, she was one of the few administration members to remain on good terms with Trump. When Trump faced his first impeachment, Haley defended his phone calls with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, saying, “You’re gonna impeach a President for asking for a favor that didn’t happen and – and giving money, and it wasn’t withheld. I don’t know what you would impeach him on.”

Haley also initially defended Trump when he manufactured a case against the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Haley admitted she hadn’t challenged Trump’s repeated lie that the election was “stolen,” telling Politico, “I understand the president. I understand that genuinely, to his core, he believes he was wronged. This is not him making it up.”

But Trump was, of course, fabricating lies of widespread election fraud – and those lies threatened to destabilize our democracy. Haley went on to bash the president in the aftermath of the January 6 attack, then said in April that she would support him if he runs in 2024 – an endorsement not just of the man himself, but what his four years in office unleashed.

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On Tuesday, Haley suggested her own potential presidential bid (one she said she would only embark on in consultation with Trump) and tried to walk a tightrope when she said, “There was fraud in the election, but I don’t think that the numbers were so big that it swayed the vote in the wrong direction.” Now, with an apparent eye toward 2024, she is trying to court Trump’s favor while maintaining an air of credibility.

Of course, Haley reflects the nature of the GOP in 2021. The radicalization of the party means that even those who are seen as moderate often fold in the face of Trump’s tactics and take up his talking points. Haley’s red-meat rhetoric at the Reagan library was utterly predictable and the speech was likely a preview of what Republicans candidates will sound like going into 2024.

There’s no going back. Trump remains popular within the GOP and voters need to be clear that his version of the Republican Party – not some imagined moderate alternative – is here to stay.

That is all the more obvious when almost every Republican, from Haley to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is still swayed by Trump and his followers.