'... whose colours change so frequently one wonders if there's any true hue beneath' (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

January 10, 2024   5 mins

In the political theatre of the 2024 Republican primaries, a curious spectacle unfolds: Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador, is dancing a delicate ballet. Her performance, however, is less Swan Lake and more like a precarious tightrope walk, where the slightest misstep could send her tumbling into the abyss of political irrelevance. Amid a colourful cast of characters featuring the intellectually provocative but oddly unlikeable Vivek Ramaswamy and the wonky, tone-deaf Ron DeSantis, Haley has emerged as the ultimate empty-suit candidate, a chameleon whose colours change so frequently one wonders if there’s any true hue beneath.

Haley’s recent comments about the Republican primaries tell the tale. Speaking on a local Iowa PBS station, she remarked: “[The Iowa Caucus] starts it. You change personalities, you go into New Hampshire.” These words encapsulate her approach: adapt, morph, become whatever the moment demands. In Iowa, where she is rising in the polls but still trailing both frontrunner Donald Trump and DeSantis, who has several political endorsements influential in Iowa, she paints herself as the tribune of patriotic, God-fearing America.

But in New Hampshire, where she is polling much higher and even getting within striking distance of Trump, she adopts a different persona, one that supposedly resonates more deeply with the emotional and forthright nature of its independent-minded voters. The gameplan, however, is the same, as she told the state’s voters last week: “You know, Iowa starts it. You know that you correct it [in New Hampshire]… And then my sweet state of South Carolina brings it home. That’s what we do.” This flexibility is both her secret weapon and her Achilles’ heel, betraying her lack of a core, enduring identity. It’s a remarkably transparent act of political shape-shifting that indicates a deeper identity crisis within Haley’s campaign.

Haley’s political biography is rife with instances of flip-flopping, none more illustrative than her stance on the Confederate flag. Once a staunch defender of its presence at the South Carolina statehouse because — one cannot make this up — “not a single CEO has complained”, Haley quickly reversed her position following mass shooter Dylann Roof’s attack on a Charleston church. This pivot, while a response to a seismic shift in public sentiment, highlights a pattern of opportunistic realignment rather than principled leadership; her hand was forced, in her words, because Roof had “hijacked the flag”. She added that it had to go because “no one should feel pain” at the sight of it, even as it remained a symbol of “service, sacrifice, and heritage” for “some” South Carolinians. It’s always a dance of two steps forward, one step back, leaving observers confused about where Haley truly stands amid all the practised corporate doublespeak.

Haley’s relationship with Trump continued her career of political vacillation. Initially a critic, particularly during the 2016 election when she won a modicum of fame by replying to an attack from the GOP insurgent by saying “bless your heart”, she gradually warmed to Trump and ended up supporting him despite her reservations. “I will not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the KKK,” she once said, only to later call Trump, of whom she was still “not a fan”, the “best person based on the policies”. For her trouble, she received a post as UN Ambassador — from which she resigned in December 2018 after news came to light of her receiving improper luxury plane trips from South Carolina business leaders. (She met the much sillier allegation of a possible affair with Trump raised by journalist Michael Wolff with justifiable derision.)

Following the events of January 6, her stance shifted again, oscillating between criticism and support. This remains the tightrope that Haley — unlike DeSantis, Ramaswamy or Christie — spends much of her time walking. And in comparison with those three, who each have their signature issues, whether it be DeSantis’s putative Right-wing march through Florida’s institutions or Christie’s blustery anti-Trump posturing, Haley occupies a place of no-place. She must offer a safe alternative to Trump — or, perhaps more cynically, make herself attractive enough to be a possible running mate for him — while keeping her rebukes within acceptable bounds. One need only analyse her public statements to understand how strange this is: she chastised Trump for his response to the Capitol riots, yet strongly opposed his second impeachment (“Give the man a break”).

A month later, Haley was writing in the Wall Street Journal that she largely supported all of his “outstanding” policies, which “made America stronger, safer, and more prosperous” — policies she has spent much of the current primary season promising to protect and extend. However, she has also said that Trump himself, the architect of all this outstanding policymaking, “cannot win a general election”. Nevertheless, she added: “I would support him because I am not going to have a President Kamala Harris” after Joe Biden steps down. How, one wonders, could she avoid this eventuality if she is throwing the weight of her endorsement behind a figure she regards as unelectable?

This love-hate dynamic with Trump speaks to a deeper issue: Haley’s inability to carve out a distinct political identity independent of the prevailing winds within the GOP. Her strategy, however, is not without its small measure of cunning. She targets the “moderate” conservative voter, a shrinking but well-off demographic disillusioned with the extremes yet hesitant to embrace the Republican Left, especially in the narcissistic “NeverTrump” guise it has adopted à la Liz Cheney. It’s a savvy move, but one that may underestimate the intelligence of these voters. Perhaps they seek substance, not just a polished veneer of diversity and business acumen. If so, Haley offers them little more than platitudes and carefully calibrated sound bites.

Then again, maybe this is all such voters want. I recently found myself on a long car journey with a well-off, self-described “moderate”, Right-leaning boomer. Between discussions about the challenges facing Biden and the state of our investments — his certainly put mine to shame — he expressed a certain admiration for Haley, describing her as “attractive and well-spoken”, and sympathising with how she, much like Biden with the “loony Left”, is in a sympathetically “tough spot”. As our conversation continued, it became evident that his support was superficial, rooted more in her persona than her policies. He couldn’t quite articulate what she stood for — and indeed was even confused about her valuable “diversity”, wrongly thinking she was Native American — only that she seemed like a palatable alternative to the more polarising figures in the GOP.

In a field of candidates which includes the sharp-minded Ramaswamy and the policy-focused DeSantis, the vacuum of Nikki Haley raises critical questions about the nature of modern political leadership. Is the GOP electorate content with a candidate whose silhouette mirrors their own, or do they yearn for a leader with a steadfast compass, unwavering in conviction? As Haley treads her way through this carefully choreographed ballet, one wonders if the larger audience — the vast expanse of the American electorate — will tire of a performance that recalls similarly unsavoury and power-hungry Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, who never met a regional accent she wouldn’t affect.

Will Haley somehow find her place in a fixed orbit around the bright orange sun that is Trump, or will she be consigned back to the storeroom closet as her party’s ultimate empty suit? Only time, and the ballots, will tell. In the meantime, the curtain continues to rise on the 2024 primaries, and the spotlight is unforgiving.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work