I hope to see a woman elected president in my lifetime. I hope it’s not the woman who said the Confederate flag was “hijacked” by a white supremacist who posed with the traitorous symbol before massacring nine Black churchgoers in an attempt to start a race war in 2015.
That would be Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador scheduled to make a “special announcement” on Feb. 15 — she’s expected to finally declare her candidacy for president.
I say “finally” because Haley has had her sights on the White House for years. It’s why her vocal aversion to Donald Trump when he launched his presidential campaign in 2015 transformed into allegiance when he became president and chose her as an ambassador.
She didn’t like the man, but she knew that standing with Trump was a better political calculation than continuing to rail against her party’s unstable standard-bearer.
Now Haley’s on the brink of challenging the same man whom she once said she would not run against. And she has to divine whether the path to winning the 2024 Republican presidential nomination means running as a moderate (whatever that means in the GOP these days) or embracing the extremism that controls the modern Republican mainstream.
When Haley resigned her post as the Trump administration’s UN ambassador in 2018, a New York Times editorial declared that she would be “missed.” She was, it said, “that rarest of Trump appointees: one who can exit the administration with her dignity largely intact.”
That’s wrong. There was no dignity for Haley, a former South Carolina governor, to lose after she defended allowing the Confederate flag to continue to fly on statehouse grounds after the racist massacre at historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Haley eventually changed her mind — but only after mounting public pressure and activist Bree Newsome Bass’s bold decision to scale the flagpole and do what the governor, up to that point, had not done: take it down.
That was apparent in her obligatory pre-presidential launch book, “With All Due Respect: Defending America with Grit and Grace.” In the 2019 book, she criticized John Kelly, a former Trump chief of staff, and Rex Tillerson, a former secretary of state, for waylaying Trump’s most bizarre proposals because it gave the impression that “the president didn’t know what he was doing.”
Trump didn’t know what he was doing, and Haley knows it. But even after leaving the White House, she was concerned only with staying in Trump’s mercurial graces.
Haley spent nearly two years in the Trump White House, long enough to raise her national profile but short enough that she isn’t considered a ride-or-die true believer. Whether playing to treasonous-flag-loving constituents or a rogue president, she has navigated her political life by tightrope-walking between public loyalty and private ambition.
Now, as she prepares to launch her presidential candidacy, she must negotiate a political minefield more perilous than any she has faced before. As Trump’s Big Lie metastasized after the 2020 presidential election, Haley did not side with the defeated president. But she also didn’t denounce his efforts to overturn the democratic will of more than 81 million Americans.
She was more outspoken after Trump incited the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. “We need to acknowledge he let us down,” Haley said. “He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”
That might be Haley’s rallying point to Trump-weary Republicans, promoting herself as the party’s best hope to keep a Trump presidency from happening again. With Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, a probable Republican presidential contender, filling the far-right lane by banning books, demonizing trans kids, and trying to turn Florida into a white supremacist fantasia, Haley has to find a place to land her campaign.
That’s the problem. Haley is as ambitious as Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. And we witnessed just how low he was willing to go to appease his party’s “chaos caucus.” Haley is smarter than McCarthy, but she is no less ruthless about pursuing the power she craves. She’s a shapeshifter willing to be whatever the political moment demands, even when that means siding with or staying silent about a would-be authoritarian.
Yes, I want to see a woman as America’s president. But history’s call deserves better than Haley, who is too willing to keep her friends close and, usually at this nation’s expense, her political frenemies closer.
Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.