I’ve made this case before but it’s time to make it again since her new book has kicked off another round of “What game is Nikki Haley playing?” As you’ll see below, “The View” panel thinks her defense of Trump on impeachment and her indignation at John Kelly and Rex Tillerson for thinking Trump is dangerous is a bid to elbow Mike Pence aside and become the party’s VP nominee in 2020. An author at Jezebel agrees. Writing at the Atlantic, David Frum is open to the possibility:
Haley may have a very short-term calculation in mind, the 2020 Republican vice-presidential nomination. Trump has long been rumored to wish to replace Vice President Mike Pence with Haley on the ticket. Haley’s book and interview suggest she may be campaigning hard for the 2020 slot. At the same time, she’s making the same bet on the 2024 future being placed by Pence, by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, by senators such as Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, and by governors such as Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida: There is no percentage in even whispering a criticism of anything Trump says or does. On some issues, such as the sellout of the Kurds, it is permissible to assert a diverging position—but even then, there must be no direct or even indirect criticism of Trump. He is the party’s great unquestionable.
Joe Scarborough’s also onboard with the “VP Haley” theory, calling her new book an “audition” for Pence’s job this morning on MSNBC. Combine all that with the rumors that occasionally bubble up in the papers about Trump fretting that women voters are going to bury him next year if he doesn’t diversify the ticket and the VP Haley theory is plain as day.
I’ll grant its adherents this: Trump has more reason than usual lately to worry about his weakness in the suburbs given last week’s Republican losses in Virginia and Pennsylvania. If he wants to win back suburban moms, there’s a hard way and an easy way. The hard way is to overhaul his image — stop tweeting, float some centrist policy proposals that might irritate his base, be … less Trumpy in general. The easy way is with an election gimmick aimed at pandering to them, i.e. putting Nikki Haley on the ticket. Trump is more an “easy way” than a “hard way” guy, so sure, it’s within the realm of possibility that he wants her on the ticket. It might even be likely.
But she doesn’t want to be on the ticket. There’s no good outcome for her if she joins it. If she ends up as VP and Trump loses next year, she’ll be tarred as a loser by association. The whole point of adding Haley to the ballot was to increase Republicans’ “electability,” her critics will say. The defeat proves that her alleged appeal to women, to moderates, and to minorities is overrated. She’ll have lost her political luster by the time the 2024 primary campaign gets rolling. And the punchline is, losing with her on the ticket will probably have nothing to do with her. It may be that Trump has dug himself such a hole next year in appealing to suburbanites and other swing voters that no VP gimmick can dig him out of it. By joining the ticket, Haley would be placing perceptions of her national viability as a GOP nominee in the hands of Donald Trump. A man who likes to scapegoat others for his own failure, and would doubtless pass some of the blame for a loss onto Haley.
If she joins the ticket and Trump wins, that’s better for her but still not great. Two terms of Trump would mean the GOP will be stuck in 2024 trying to do what’s proved to be nearly impossible in modern American political history, winning a third straight term in the White House. Nominating Haley as a successor to Trump would be an interesting twist on that since she’s so different in every way — sex, race, tone, ideology — that to some degree it would seem as though an entirely different party was competing in the election. But only to a degree: The core problem for Haley is that, as VP for four years, she’d be saddled with every weird or scandalous thing Trump does in his second term, which is sure to be five times as crazy as this one was since he’ll no longer have to face the voters again. Every dubious tweet, every sketchy phone call with a foreign leader, every billion dollars of new debt, every what-the-hell foreign policy surprise will be hers to own and defend. She couldn’t resign either, no matter how bad things got; to abandon the president that way would incinerate any goodwill she had earned with his base, killing her chances in 2024.
Put simply, a second Trump term is bound to be so hallucinatory that it’s nutty to imagine Haley being eager to be part of it. Better for her to stay on the sidelines cheering him on, and then when something crazy happens to say, “Got nothing to do with me.” Then she can run on her own brand in 2024, being more or less Trumpy in her pitch as political circumstances at the time require.
To answer the question from up top, then, the “game” Haley is playing with her book is simply staying on the good side of MAGA Nation. She won’t be their first choice in 2024 but it’s important to remain acceptable to them as a potential nominee, not someone whose victory in the primaries would cause them to stay home in the general election in protest. Maybe she can even squeeze a few grudging primary votes out of them on electability grounds. And in the meantime, if Trump decides to make her the keynote speaker at next year’s GOP convention as a reward for her continuing loyalty, that wouldn’t be such a bad development for a nominee-in-waiting, now would it?