Brian Snyder/Reuters

From the Center

Nikki Haley is probably not going to be president. But she might be. In fact, she may have a better chance of winning next year’s election than anyone other than Joe Biden and Donald Trump. And so, with seven weeks until the Iowa caucuses, it’s worth considering what her nomination over Trump would mean to the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

The contemporary GOP has little in common with the party that Reagan led other than its name and its mascot. The coalition between wealthy businesspeople, national security-focused globalists and religious conservatives that Reagan fashioned in the 1980s and was maintained with varying degrees of success by two Bushes, John McCain and Mitt Romney over the next quarter-century no longer exists. While evangelical and fundamentalist voters still represent a key element of the Republican base, Trump has replaced the other components of Reagan’s alliance with working-class populists and America First isolationists.

Haley would be well-positioned to lead the Republican Party of Reagan; Trump’s will be a much more difficult challenge. Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan and Mike Pence, among many others, thought they could return the Republican Party to its pre-Trumpian roots. All failed badly, and Haley has decided that a less frontal approach can be more successful. This strategy has lifted her into second place in most primary polls, and while Ron DeSantis, Chris Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy all maintain pockets of support within the party, it looks increasingly likely that Haley will be the GOP contender who gets the one-on-one matchup with Trump at some point early next year.

Seven weeks can be seven lifetimes in politics, and DeSantis in particular may still find a way to reclaim leadership of the “Un-Trump” Republicans. But Haley appears to have found a way to become the favorite of the Reagan-Bush-Romney conservatives without engendering the ire of Trump’s most loyal supporters. That may change as the field shrinks and as Trump shifts his focus onto her more fully, but if either Trump’s legal troubles or other factors cause some of his supporters to look elsewhere, Haley is now clearly the most likely beneficiary.

Haley is not a Never Trump Republican. She not only served in his Cabinet, but Democratic researchers have already compiled volumes of laudatory comments that she has made about her former boss. Even today, as she runs against him, Haley is careful not to be too harsh in her criticism, preferring to draw contrasts by implication rather than full-on attacks. Think of her instead as a pre-Trump Republican, whose goal is not to drive her opponent from the Republican Party but rather to simply restore the party to the fiscally conservative and internationalist force that it had been prior to his arrival.

Haley’s problem is that many of the voters who supported that Reagan-ish GOP have left and have been replaced by grassroots populists with intense hostility toward both corporate America and any significant economic, diplomatic or security commitments overseas. Her strong religious commitment and social conservative agenda will endear her to some of these voters, but the question she will be forced to answer in the next few months is whether there are more Romneys in the party ranks than there are Ramaswamys.

Haley’s economic prescription of lower taxes, deficit reduction and other support for the nation’s business community, coupled with a more aggressive approach in Ukraine, China, and the Middle East, has the potential to lure many former Republicans who strayed during the Trump years back into the GOP field. Many corporate leaders are only slightly less uncomfortable with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party than Trump’s personal conduct and most egregious MAGA tendencies. A calmer, more rational — and more traditional — conservatism from Haley could be a tempting lure.

But while those newly-enthused country-clubbers and middle-class suburbanites could help Haley in a general election, she has to win the GOP nomination first. Which means she needs to defeat Trump for control of a party that he has created.

That’s not going to be easy. But over the next few months, Republican primary voters will need to look in the mirror to decide what type of party they want for themselves. If they choose to update Reagan’s party for the 21st century, then Haley could be their leader in a general election against Biden. But Trumpism isn’t going away without a fight. We’ll learn in the weeks ahead whether Haley is up for it.

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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).

Image Source: Brian Snyder/Reuters