Most of the Republicans on the Milwaukee debate stage on August 23 were vying less to win the primary than to be anointed Donald Trump’s running mate. In either case, Nikki Haley has little chance. The debate gave the former South Carolina governor and Trump administration U.N. ambassador no more than a minor boost. Among potential Republican primary voters polled by the Washington Post, Ipsos, and FiveThirtyEight, she came in third, at 15 percent, behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and billionaire Vivek Ramaswamy (fourth if you count the absent frontrunner); before that, she’d polled in the single digits.
If her odds of winning the primary are slim, those of receiving DJT’s blessing are less than zero. Haley betrayed her former boss by deciding to run. Then she called him out for raising the national debt. On top of that, she is a brunette — not Trump’s type.
But Haley’s presence, in figure-fitting white boucle amid a marching formation of dark suits and red ties, is important in another way: It brings the GOP’s gender politics out of the closet. Sure, gender is a big deal for the party — when it’s somebody else’s. The 2022 midterms revealed the saliency of abortion for women voters and the advantage that gives Democrats. And, as these candidates tell it, transgender people are the greatest threat to U.S. security, right alongside China and the teachers unions.
But what about gender among their own? How does Haley’s gender play in her life as a politician? What does her rising stardom say about the Republicans’ future?
The morning after Milwaukee, Vox politics reporter Li Zhou argued that Haley had “leveraged” her gender “as an asset.” In Politico, Megan Messerly wrote that she “leaned into” it. Both noted Haley’s quip, interjected during a volley of disses between Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: “This is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said, ‘If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.’”
It’s a line she quotes often. In fact, “If You Want Something Done: Leadership Lessons From Bold Women” is the title of Haley’s book, and Thatcher claims Chapter 1. But if you’re looking for a champion of women, the Iron Lady is famously not your person. The Ronald Reagan of Britain, Prime Minister Thatcher inaugurated her party’s demolition of the welfare state. She evinced no sympathy for the low-income mothers — or any mothers, for that matter — who did not have the rich, supportive husband and staff of nannies that she had. She despised feminism and dismissed female assertiveness. “‘I didn’t get here by being a strident female. I don’t like strident females,’” quoted Jenni Murray, then-host of BBC Radio’s “Woman’s Hour,” in The Guardian the day after Thatcher’s death in 2013. “What did Margaret Thatcher do for women?” Murray asked. “Nothing.”
Like Thatcher, Haley is worried more about spending than the well-being of the vulnerable, assumed to be a top concern for women politicians. At a recent rally, Haley came out for “entitlement reform” of Social Security and Medicare, aka privatization and cuts. At the debate, she decried bipartisan pandemic-era policies that expanded eligibility for government assistance — and lifted millions, most of them children, out of poverty. When Congress “passed that $2.2 trillion Covid stimulus bill, they left us with 90 million people on Medicaid, 42 million people on food stamps,” Haley declared. “No one has told you how to fix it.”
Don’t mistake Nikki Haley for a moderate — or a feminist. In a field of candidates falling off the right side of the earth, she only looks like one.
As examples of Haley’s feminine approach, Zhou named her promotion of “consensus” and respect for individual difference. “Can’t we agree that contraception should be available? Can’t we all agree that we are not going to put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty if she gets an abortion?” the candidate asked, allowing that abortion is “personal for every woman and man.” Haley added, “Let’s … humanize the situation and stop demonizing the situation.”
Is the 20-week abortion ban (19, she now claims) with no exceptions for rape or incest that Gov. Haley signed in 2016 humanizing or demonizing? It was, at any rate, unconstitutional seven years before Roe v. Wade was overturned in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Early this summer, Haley pledged to work for a federal 15-week abortion ban, though her answers on this question during the debate were vague. That a 15-week ban is a reasonable compromise and not killing people for ending their pregnancies a moderate stance probably says more about where we’ve come since Dobbs than it does about Haley. But don’t mistake her for a moderate — or a feminist. In a field of candidates falling off the right side of the earth, she only looks like one.
The hard-right, proto-misogynist Thatcher may be Haley’s role model. But the person who inspired her to get into politics is on the other side: “The reason I actually ran for office is because of Hillary Clinton,” she told the New York Times in 2012. “Everybody was telling me why I shouldn’t run: I was too young, I had small children, I should start at the school board level.” Then Haley attended Clinton’s keynote address to a leadership institute at Birmingham University. Such advice not to run, Haley recalled Clinton insisting, constituted “the reasons why we need you to do it.” Haley “walked out of there thinking, ‘That’s it. I’m running for office.’”
But Clinton did not just lend Haley the gumption to run. For decades, she trod a rugged track, smoothing it for successors of both parties to follow without stumbling.
From the moment she mounted the national stage, when Bill Clinton was running for president in 1992, Hillary’s feminism was at odds with the femininity demanded of her. In the couple’s first interview, on “60 Minutes,” she was questioned about his infidelities. “I’m not sittin’ here, some little woman standin’ by my man, like Tammy Wynette,” she spat. The same year, challenged about her intention to continue her law practice if Bill won, Hillary replied: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession.” Cookiegate would haunt her for years. And during Bill Clinton’s impeachment, she was flamed for standing by her man.
During her own 2008 presidential primary fight, against Barack Obama, Clinton again faced the impossible: looking feminine enough to get elected as the first “woman president” yet tough (that is, masculine) enough to serve as the Leader of the Free World. One metric of electability at the time was “likability.” In August 2007, Obama was the only candidate averaging over 50 — 53, to be exact — among both Democrats and Republicans on Gallup’s zero-to-100-degree “feeling thermometer.” Clinton trailed at 49. The moderator of the debate preceding the New Hampshire primary asked her to comment on the fact that voters were impressed by her resumé but “seem to like Obama more.” Clinton smiled knowingly. “Well, that hurts my feelings,” she responded. “But I’ll try to go on.” The audience laughed. This was where Obama committed one of the few gaffes in a scrupulously disciplined campaign: “She’s likable enough,” he said.
Obama was likable, charming even. But as a man, he didn’t have to be. Even the vicious, petty Rudy Giuliani had earned a 50 on the feeling thermometer. And Clinton did go on. But she wearied, and three days after the debate, talking to voters in a coffee shop, she briefly choked up. Against all predictions, she shellacked Obama in New Hampshire, with greatest support from women and low-income voters. People say the tears humanized her; I think they feminized her. But they didn’t save her. On the internet she was still being called a cunt. And it wasn’t until her second presidential run, nearly a quarter-century after the “‘60 Minutes’ debacle,” that Clinton could revive the cookie remark, this time with cheeky pride.
The gender politics of the Clinton-Obama matchup — her refusal to fold into conventional white femininity, his millennial Black middle-class masculinity — had a permanent effect not only on women in subsequent political races but also on men and trans candidates of any gender. Arguably, Obama cleared the way for the openly gay Pete Buttigieg; the 118th Congress has more LGBTQ+ members than any before it. Even the Republican field has more space for diverse masculinities, from the staid, white, Christian patriarch Mike Pence to the slight, jittery, Indian American Vivek Ramaswamy.
And space for diverse femininities? A decade ago, a University of California, Los Angeles study found that the more conservative a female politician’s voting record, the more gender-stereotypically pretty she was — and, on the whole, Republican women are still a femme-y bunch. But Haley resembles Clinton more than she does her conservative colleagues and predecessors. She is handsome and well put-together. But unlike the beauty queen turned anti-gay activist Anita Bryant, Haley doesn’t trade on her looks. And unlike Phyllis Schlafly, who always thanked her husband Fred for letting her out of the house to campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment, Nikki waved Michael Haley off this summer to a National Guard deployment in Africa while she carried on campaigning at home.
Though staunchly uni-gender, Nikki Haley is combative but not masculine, feminine but not girly. She is, in a sense, a 21st-century Republican Hillary Clinton. But thanks to feminism — and its liberal standard-bearer Clinton — Haley does not have to wager likability against credibility, femininity against humanity.
For a candidate of any gender, likability may be obsolete as a criterion for election. As with so many other things, Trump bashed the meaning out of it. Its qualities circa 2008 — tolerance, courtesy, warmth, generosity — define the anti-Trump. The ex-president is adulated for his bigotry, rudeness, and egomania. Misogyny is another positive: According to the Fairleigh Dickinson University poll, the most sexist Republicans are Trump’s biggest fans; among them he leads his nearest competitor, the goofy, whiny DeSantis, 74 percent to 13 percent.
Haley’s evident human mien masks her inhumane leanings.
Would a Trump bro vote for a woman? Hard to know. But for the non-pussy-grabbing Republican forced to choose between a woman and a Democrat (who might also be a woman), the party could not do better than Haley. Aside from her please-all-comers gender presentation, she is of attractively indeterminate race, a hyphenate who passes for white. (Like Ramaswamy, Haley is Indian American.) Her evident human mien masks her inhumane leanings. Mother of two adult children, wife of a soldier, and owner of dogs, the requisite pet of higher officeholders, she can play the woman card and, like her heroine Thatcher, do nothing, or worse, for women — not to mention LGBTQ+ people, racial minorities, children, or anyone with the spinelessness to need protection or help.
Hillary Clinton didn’t get the chance to demonstrate that a woman can be strong enough to run a country. Margaret Thatcher did but also showed — as did Golda Meir and Evita Perón — that being a woman says nothing about how she will run it. Nikki Haley probably won’t make it to the hustings this election cycle, but she seems destined to do so soon enough. When that happens, her colleagues would be wise to embrace her, because she is a gift to the GOP: a wolf in women’s clothing, lipstick on the pigs.