What Nikki Haley Can Teach Us About the Republican Party

Nikki Haley during the Republican National Convention in 2020. She has supported and criticized Donald J. Trump. Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

Ronald Reagan’s brand of neoconservative foreign policy, free-market economics and social conservatism dominated the Republican Party for nearly 40 years.

Then came Donald J. Trump.

Today, everyone would agree that Reagan-era conservatism is no longer the dominant force in the Republican Party. But what force Reaganism does possess, if any, is a much more open question.

Is it as spent as the ideas of earlier conservative leaders like Barry Goldwater or Robert Taft? Or is it an important if diminished faction that might be poised to resurrect itself with the former president now diminished himself?

Nikki Haley, who announced her presidential bid on Tuesday, is one of several Republicans who will help test whether a revitalized Reaganism still has a pulse in today’s Republican Party. Of all the candidates, she might be the likeliest to run back the Gipper’s Greatest Hits and, in doing so, teach us a thing or two about whether they still resonate among today’s Republican voters.

Ms. Haley, a former Rubio ’16 supporter and the child of Indian immigrants, is a darling of neoconservatives and a defender of Reagan’s continued relevance. Her announcement featured many of the old Reagan-Bush classics, if slightly remixed for today’s challenges. She pointed out she had “seen evil” on the world stage and supported tax cuts, and she defended America as the “freest and greatest” country in the world.

There will be plenty of other opportunities to dust off the old Reagan playbook if she so chooses. She could argue that lower government spending, free trade and more legal immigration is the textbook solution to high inflation and a soaring national debt. She could even argue that Mr. Trump’s big government spending and trade wars helped contribute to inflation in the first place. Neoliberalism took off in the 1980s for a reason, after all.

The opportunities on foreign policy are fairly clear as well. With Chinese balloons in the air and Russian troops advancing on the ground, a hawkish candidate should find it straightforward to argue for higher military spending and closer cooperation with allies — and to argue against cozying up to the likes of Vladimir Putin. Here again, it’s easy to imagine the opportunity to attack Mr. Trump.

Ms. Haley’s strength in the polls may not be a great test of the electoral appeal of traditional conservatism. She’s a first-time candidate with single-digit support in the polls. Almost all presidential candidates who start in the single digits end at zero, and that usually doesn’t say much about the strength of their ideological faction.

But if Ms. Haley can gain traction — if she can raise big money, if she can land a punch on the debate stage, if she can draw applause for linking immigration and inflation, or attacking Mr. Putin — it may say something about the appetite for her brand of conservatism.

What might say the most of all is if she could successfully attack Mr. Trump — but, realistically, she is probably not going to directly do so very often. She was a former Trump administration official as U.N. ambassador. Indeed, Mr. Trump appeared to bless her run, perhaps in hope that she will siphon away votes from Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

In an interview with the Fox host Sean Hannity last month, Ms. Haley didn’t seem eager for a fight. When asked what policy differences she had with Mr. Trump, she said she “totally” agreed with “most of the policies that he did.” When Mr. Hannity followed up by asking the question a second time, she pivoted to the baby formula shortage.

This nonconfrontational approach is emblematic of a broader challenge for her in today’s populist, pugnacious Republican Party. She appears to be temperamentally moderate, regardless of her views on the issues. And some of her views really have been relatively moderate. As governor, she famously removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House. She wouldn’t support a bill blocking transgender people from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity. She’s sympathetic to a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. This is no culture warrior.

In today’s Republican Party, Ms. Haley will have no choice but to try to tap into the culture wars. In her announcement video, she recast her Reagan-like belief in American greatness as a counter to the left-wing view that America’s founding principles are “bad” or “racist.” Her race and gender might make her an especially strong proponent for this kind of position, especially if she more explicitly embraces conservative views.

But while American exceptionalism may be at odds with the left, it doesn’t channel the anger and resentment that fuels large elements of the conservative base. In this important respect, a reincarnated Reaganism will not be like the original. Reagan was the leader of the conservative movement at the time; Ms. Haley and those who would resurrect Reagan today are not. Reagan was not simply running on the views of previous conservatives like Goldwater, or Taft, who opposed big government, including foreign intervention. A Taft Republican on foreign policy would have seemed very moderate on the Soviet Union in 1979, and an older Goldwater would have seemed moderate on abortion. Today, Reaganism is out of step with conservatives in many important ways.

The new generation of conservatives who rose to prominence after Mr. Trump, including governors like Mr. DeSantis or even a Glenn Youngkin, might have an easier time figuring out how to channel today’s right-wing energy into something more like traditional conservatism than Mr. Trump’s populism. They have a record of doing so. Ms. Haley does not.

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