Brian Snyder/Reuters

From the Center

Nikki Haley learned last week that the days in between Christmas and New Year's are a bad time for a gaffe.

There’s never a good time to forget that the Civil War was fought to end slavery or to sound like you want to avoid taking sides between the Union and Confederacy almost 160 years after Appomattox. But the extra-slow news week at the end of the year, when most of the political world is shut down, meant that Haley’s controversial and evasive statement, her belated and half-baked clarification, and the withering criticism she has taken from all sides received much more attention than would have been the case at a busier point on the calendar.

Aside from the inconvenient timing, the other reason that Haley has been the target of such disparagement is that this is the first opportunity that most of her foes have had to unload on her in any credible way. Her campaign has not been flawless, but she’s attracted enough positive attention and avoided any significant blunders to allow her to emerge as the de facto nominee of the Reagan-era Republican Party. Unless last week’s error metastasizes itself into a re-definitional moment for her, Haley is still the strong favorite to represent traditional Republicans in the coming battle against Donald Trump for the GOP nomination.

Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy and Donald Trump’s campaign all unsurprisingly and eagerly leveled attacks on Haley, but less for the substance of her remarks than her weakness as a candidate. But it was Chris Christie, who has been fighting Haley for the un-Trump portion of the primary electorate, who framed his criticism in a way that may be harder for her to dispel.

“She didn’t say what she said last night and today about this because she’s dumb. She’s not, she’s smart, and she knows better.” Christie said. “The reason she did it is just as bad, if not worse, and she got everybody concerned about her candidacy. She did it because she’s unwilling to offend anyone by telling the truth.”

This is a similar approach to the one employed by Christie in the 2016 primary against Marco Rubio, when he suggested the Florida senator was overly programmed and lacked core convictions. Rubio never figured out how to prove Christie wrong, and it could present an equally difficult challenge for Haley. The only way to demonstrate that you are willing to offend somebody… is to offend someone. In a shrinking but still-crowded primary field, that’s harder than it sounds.

To date, Haley’s best moments have been her verbal assaults of Ramaswamy on the debate stage (“Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say”). Now she may have to figure out a way to level similar insults against a more formidable target without undermining her upbeat persona or alienating a segment of the voters she’s trying to reach. Haley’s challenge is not about how she articulates her thoughts on slavery, but about how she demonstrates her core principles.

But the harshest and most intriguing condemnations that Haley faced were from Democrats. The fact that the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee stood up against slavery was unsurprising. But what was more interesting was the enthusiasm with which the Democrats went after Haley. For several years now, they have argued that the greatest danger posed by Trump was not a matter of policy-based ideology but rather the fundamental threat they believe he poses to democracy.

This distinction suggests that a conventional Republican like Haley running on a typical conservative agenda would be more acceptable than Trump. Such sentiment has driven Wall Street billionaire Jamie Dimon to push Haley’s candidacy, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman to donate to her campaign, and Haley’s own team to prioritize crossover voters as a key part of her strategy for winning the New Hampshire primary in February.

But when Haley slipped, the Democrats pounced. Polls show that she runs much more strongly against Biden than does Trump, beating the president by a double-digit margin in some recent nationwide surveys. So it’s understandable why partisan political operatives would instinctively rush to damage the opposition’s strongest general election candidate. But hurting Haley means helping Trump, and while Democrats certainly hope that Biden can win a rematch of the 2020 campaign, increasing Trump’s chances for the nomination seems like a considerable risk to take given the danger they believe his election would present.

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Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).