Nikki Haley in December 2017. Photo by EJ Hersom, courtesy the Department of Defense (DoD News).
This week’s resignation announcement from United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley came as a surprise, but it is not so shocking if you view it as the first move in the 2020 GOP presidential primaries.
In an Oval Office appearance with President Trump, Haley said that she had told the president six months ago that she planned to leave her position at the end of 2018. She submitted a formal resignation letter dated Oct. 3, ahead of the announcement, in which she praised Trump for keeping his promise that she would be “free to speak my mind on the issues of the day.” The president was quick to equally praise Haley’s performance, saying, “She’s done a fantastic job, and we’ve done a fantastic job together,” during her Oval Office appearance.
I do not expect Haley to challenge Trump’s re-election bid, although in the Trump presidency practically anything that has not happened might still happen. More likely, I think Haley is giving herself the option – without committing herself – to launch a campaign if Trump decides not to seek a second term. While Haley has said she has no plans to run for office in 2020, those sorts of plans can and do change.
Alternatively, Haley would make a fine running mate for current Vice President Mike Pence or another candidate, including Trump himself if Pence should leave the ticket. Vice presidential candidates are traditionally a campaign’s leading attack dog. Haley, a highly popular and broadly experienced Republican woman from a Southern background and a member of a racial minority (she is Indian-American), would be a fearsome political weapon to deploy against potential Democratic opponents like senators Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris.
Trump, who knows something about show business, has been grooming Haley for a future starring role ever since she abandoned her initial opposition to his candidacy and joined his administration. He has given Haley plenty of time in the spotlight at the United Nations, where she has fiercely advocated for many of his policies on Russia, Iran and the Middle East. He has spent private time with her aboard Air Force One and allowed her to credibly claim that she has his ear whenever she needs it. When she went to the White House on Tuesday to tell him that she plans to depart at the end of this year, he was effusive in his praise.
The president has been on a pretty good winning streak lately. Getting Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh confirmed was his most significant triumph, but he has also scored points with a revised North American trade deal, a new tax law, moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (a move Haley vocally supported), a minuscule 3.7 percent unemployment rate and a stock market that has been high and mainly steady despite global headwinds, including his own aggressive positions on trade.
Trump was also the oldest person to ever be sworn in as president. With more credibility than on many other things he has stated, he could plausibly announce sometime in the latter part of 2019 that he has succeeded in making America great again, and that he is ready to turn it over to younger hands from his administration. Pence is the obvious potential successor, but Haley could also be in the mix. She will have the entire first part of 2019, at least, to lay the groundwork.
Of course, there are many other things she could do besides run for president. Sen. Lindsey Graham of her home state of South Carolina will be up for re-election in 2020. He does not seem especially worried about a challenge from Haley and was generous with his own praise after she announced her resignation. But if he does not run for some reason, she could slide into his seat almost at will.
Haley could also move on to academia or a conservative think-tank. Or turn her now-extensive international connections to profitable use as a consultant or rainmaker in the private sector.
But if she mounts a future White House bid, Haley will be a formidable candidate. Her solid anti-abortion record will come under heavy attack from Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America and others on the opposite side of that issue, but it will be hard to portray Haley as someone who hates women. There will also be efforts to depict her as hostile to gay rights, but that will not square especially well with her past record and rhetoric. In reality, she has been a moderate by GOP standards on many social issues. It was Haley who finally got the Confederate flag removed from the South Carolina state capitol grounds, although it took a tragic mass murder in Charleston to move her to action.
On the personal front, Haley has an impeccable record: A daughter of Sikh immigrants (but born in South Carolina and therefore eligible for the presidency), she is bi-cultural and entrepreneurial. She started working in her mother’s clothing business at age 12, studied accounting at Clemson University, and returned to be the chief financial officer of her mother’s business before going into politics. While she occupied the governor’s office, her husband Michael served a year with his Army National Guard unit, making him apparently the first spouse of a governor to serve on active duty in a war zone. His colleagues in the Marines referred to him as FGOSC – “First Gentleman of South Carolina.”
There will be a certain irony, and no shortage of drama, if the first female president turns out to be a Republican conservative, mentored by a predecessor widely accused of misogyny. But when it comes to modern American politics, stranger things have happened. Much stranger, come to think of it.