Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is a longtime journalist based in South Carolina and the Batten Professor for Communication Studies at Davidson College. His latest book is “Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
I first met Nikki Haley during her initial run for governor of South Carolina in 2010 at a luncheon at Magnolia’s, a Myrtle Beach buffet-style restaurant popular with the locals. Though she had served in the state’s House of Representatives for several years, I didn’t know her well – and neither did most people in the state.
The luncheon was being hosted in the aftermath of the scandal plaguing South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who had snuck out of the country to see his mistress but told his staff he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail. After listening to Haley give a fairly routine stump speech, I asked Haley, if she won, would she resign as governor if she made as big a misstep as Sanford had.
“I won’t mess up like him,” she said without hesitation.
As governor of South Carolina, she never messed up like Sanford, who also had strong presidential prospects before his escapades. But she messed up when she decided to embrace Donald Trump – rather than keeping him at arm’s length – providing further proof that even the most talented Republicans were willing to bend the knee to the former president.
Though she released a video on Tuesday announcing her intention to run against Trump for president in 2024, Haley has lost the moral high ground she once had over him.
To be clear, Haley never really had the moral high ground; she just created the illusion of having it. She is as politically ambitious as any man or woman who has considered themselves qualified enough to lead the world’s most powerful nation. However, her principles have often seemed an afterthought or conditional on circumstance.
And despite Haley’s ambitions, former President Donald Trump is still the top contender for the nomination. His most loyal supporters, which still number in the millions, won’t abandon him just because of a loss in 2020 – which many of them falsely believe was stolen from him – and a bad 2022 midterm cycle for Trump-backed candidates.
But if, for some reason, he stumbles or gets embroiled in too many legal battles, Haley should be considered a serious contender. After all, you don’t get elected twice as governor of Deep South, Bible Belt South Carolina as a woman with dark skin and a Sikh background by happenstance.
And though Haley’s embrace of Trumpism was undoubtedly a mistake, there were early indications from her time as governor that her priority was not always the people of South Carolina, but her own political aspirations.
In 2013, then-Gov. Haley and a Republican-dominated General Assembly denied the expansion of Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act to hundreds of thousands of low-income South Carolinians. She even opposed creating a statewide health care exchange under that law.
Health officials in her administration told me at the time that there were simply better options, but it was clear to close observers in the state it was primarily about political expedience – especially when Haley declared that she would not expand Medicaid on President Barack Obama’s watch.
About 40% of the state’s uninsured adults would have received health coverage under an expansion, as well as low-wage workers in retail and hospitality who are concentrated in Horry County, home to resort destination Myrtle Beach, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
A White House study said expansion could have saved about 200 lives in the state every year through early detection and treatment. And a University of South Carolina study estimated the state could have seen an additional 44,000 jobs added by 2020 with the multibillion dollar federal investment from a Medicaid expansion.
Indeed, Haley, a self-avowed “pro-life” advocate, stood in the way of life-saving Obamacare – exposing her hypocrisy on an issue that has come to define the modern-day Republican Party.
Her stance on taxes wasn’t much better. Haley adhered to the tax cuts today, tax cuts tomorrow, tax cuts forever boilerplate conservative talking point while in the governor’s mansion. She wanted to cut income taxes in the state, even when fellow Republicans said the cuts would be too steep.
Haley proposed a tax swap, a lowering of the top marginal income tax rate for the wealthiest South Carolinians in exchange for an increase in the gas fee that everyone pays. And she kept pushing for tax cuts even in her final budget proposal. She did not get her way often.
Of course, many of her supporters point to her handling of the Confederate flag as a sign of her sincere commitment to the people of South Carolina, and particularly the Black community.
But even that is questionable at best. The blood of Black South Carolinians had to be spilled before that flag would be removed.
After White supremacist Dylann Roof massacred innocent Black churchgoers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015, Haley took the lead on the decision to take the Confederate battle flag off the South Carolina State House.
But for years prior to the mass shooting, Haley had dodged the issue, claiming – falsely – that there was no push in South Carolina for the flag to come down.
“What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state,” she said during a debate as she ran for re-election in 2014 against Democratic challenger Vincent Sheheen. “I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”
Haley had not taken any steps to get the flag lowered, or even hinted that she would try, before that ugly night in Charleston. And just a few years ago, she claimed Roof had “hijacked” the meaning of the flag that some South Carolinians embraced as part of a proud heritage.
Still, by making the decision to remove the flag at the time she did, Haley successfully sold the idea that she cared. That decision, paired with her actions on key GOP priorities – from health care to taxes – positioned her well within the party. Haley was even tasked with giving the response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union in 2016, a sign of the party’s faith in her abilities and ambitions.
But when Trump first declared, Haley was an early critic. In February 2016, she said she would not endorse Trump, explaining that he is “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president.” She continued to criticize him as she campaigned with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, whom she had endorsed for president.
Then Haley reversed course when Trump became the nominee, and she landed the type of position in his administration that would provide her with the foreign policy experience she’d need for a presidential run: US ambassador to the United Nations. She could plausibly claim to have taken the position to serve her country – not Trump.
Her approach seemed to work. She had good standing among staunch Trump supporters but had not alienated those who considered themselves moderates and Never Trumpers when she left her position at the UN. As a South Carolina voter who had sworn off the Republican Party, I was even intrigued by what she had pulled off.
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All of these strategic decisions make her a contender worth watching in the primary season. But they are also an important reminder of where so many of the leaders of the Republican Party are today – comfortable with embracing leaders who traffic in bigotry and racism when it’s beneficial in an election cycle, but equally comfortable using race and gender to protect the GOP against barbs from Democrats and others about White supremacy and misogyny.
That’s precisely how Haley defended South Carolina against accusations that the flying of the flag of traitors who tried to establish a new country built on the premise of permanent black enslavement was harming the state’s image. It’s a heads I win-tails you lose version of identity politics.
“But we really kind of fixed all that when you elected the first Indian-American female governor,” Haley said during that 2014 debate in South Carolina. “When we appointed the first African-American U.S. senator [Tim Scott], that sent a huge message.”
On that count, Haley is in a strong position. She embodies the party well. But her embrace of Trump made him look stronger and her weaker. She’ll have to climb a mountain of her own making to win the nomination against him.