Why Nikki Haley fell in line

Nikki Haley announces March 6 that she is suspending her presidential campaign. MUST CREDIT: Melina Mara/The Washington Post

Late in her primary campaign against Donald Trump – arguably after Trump had sewn up the nomination – Nikki Haley started voicing tough criticisms of his fitness for office. “If you mock the service of a combat veteran, you don’t deserve a driver’s license, let alone being president of the United States,” she said. That rhetoric thrilled voters who are strongly anti-Trump. Since very few of those voters are still Republicans, it was impossible that their support would make her the Republican nominee. But it allowed her to serve as a kind of protest vote inside the Republican primaries.

But now Haley’s on-again, off-again support of Trump has switched back to on. She says she will vote for him in the fall. She has not taken back anything she said about him – as Andrew Egger writes in the Bulwark, your fridge might still have butter you bought when she was making those attacks – but she says President Biden is worse.

Her latest stance has disappointed some of the people who were recently supporting her. But nobody is shocked by it. So many Republicans – too many to list here – once spoke harshly of Trump, only to end up backing him anyway. We have seen enough of them to understand her thinking even if we disagree.

First, there is the lure of binarism. Barring some health disaster, either Biden or Trump will be sworn in as president on Jan. 20. Most politicians, like most voters, figure that the responsible thing to do is choose the best, or least bad, of the two. Mike Pence and Paul D. Ryan may reject the idea that we have any such obligation, but they (make that we) are in a lonely minority. And the view that Biden is worse than Trump is one that nearly half the country, including the vast majority of Republicans, sincerely takes. It may well be Haley’s actual view, too.

If so, self-interest buttresses it. If Trump were headed for a landslide defeat, Haley could have withheld her support and afterward presented herself as the one who had told us so. But the polls tell us this race isn’t headed to that conclusion. If Trump were to win, especially narrowly, then a non-supportive Haley would be the person who almost cost Republicans victory. If he lost narrowly, her refusal to support him would look even worse: She would be the one who doomed the country to another term of Biden-Harris.

Under normal circumstances, there is a face-saving way for losing primary candidates to reconcile what they said about the nominee with the demands of party unity: They bargain for concessions. When she dropped out, Haley said that Trump should court the people who voted for her. She reiterated the point when she announced her vote preference, even though Trump has engaged in no courting in the interim.

But there was no point in holding out for more. Haley’s most effective barbs against Trump were about his character, not his policies. That’s not a critique that lends itself to bargaining. Trump can’t credibly promise to embrace fewer conspiracy theories, or to be a completely different person.

It may not have escaped Haley’s notice that, in addition to having nothing to bargain for, she had little to bargain with. A lot of Haley’s voters were not so much pro-her as anti-Trump. Her halfhearted endorsement is not going to change their minds about him. It’s just going to sour them on her. But she will keep some goodwill among the larger number of Republicans who are behind Trump.

Anyone who voted for her and now regrets it can repair to the wisdom of the Bible: Put not your faith in princes. Princesses, either.



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