Nikki Haley Should Go for Broke

Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley gestures while walking with supporters, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, near a polling site at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, N.H. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) (AP)
Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley gestures while walking with supporters, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, near a polling site at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, N.H. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) (AP)

Summary

Of course it’s too early to drop out. A veteran GOP speechwriter has advice on challenging Trump.

This shouldn’t even be a question.

A great party is trying to produce its presidential nominee. Donald Trump is the leader in the contest so far, and looks likely to be the victor. But the cycle has just started (61 delegates allocated, 2,368 to go) and the party isn’t united, it’s split, roughly 50/50 pro-Trump and not.

Nikki Haley is right to stay in and fight. No one has the right to shut her down. She’s stumping in her home state, South Carolina, and getting a lot of advice. I remember George H.W. Bush at a difficult point in the GOP primaries in 1988, after he lost Iowa. All his friends were saying, “You have to show you’re strong!" He’d listen politely, thank them, now and then ask if they had any specific ideas on how to show “strength." They’d wave their hands and flounder. Finally Bush growled to his aides: How do they want me to show it? Maybe I’ll get off the plane, go up to the greeting party and slug ’em in the face, plaster ’em, maybe that’ll do it.

That’s from memory, thus no quote marks, but I think of it when the subject is the well-meaning but useless advice candidates under pressure receive.

For useful advice I turned to my friend Landon Parvin, savant and veteran Washington speechwriter, who tore himself away from work to offer practical thoughts.

Go for broke, Landon said; there’s only one subject now and it’s Mr. Trump. Go at him, make it new. “Feel the freedom of your situation," he says to Ms. Haley. “Self-respect is at issue. You’re not slinking off under pressure. There is something glorious about a last stand."

“You alone now carry the banner. Speak up for all the Republicans who have been demeaned, diminished and threatened by Trump. He can no longer hurt you. Pick up the sword. You don’t have to give Shakespeare’s band-of-brothers speech but live it!"

Lean into being a woman. “The woman card is untapped by Republican women because they don’t like identity politics." But the suburbs will appreciate it, and Mr. Trump is going after you as a woman, insulting how you present yourself, calling you “birdbrain." “You were once in the Little Miss Bamberg, S.C., pageant and sang ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ That’s a beautiful thing for the daughter of immigrants. Trump desecrates such images, this man who owned the Miss USA pageant and grabbed women by certain parts. This is bigger than you. Speak up for Republican women."

It’s OK to note you beat Joe Biden in the polls while with Mr. Trump it’s a toss-up, fine to point out that Mr. Trump has lost a step, but be careful. “Do it with humor or you’ll look like you want to stand on his ventilator tube."

But the issue is Mr. Trump’s nature. Start, Landon says, with something like this: “Remember when Trump said he could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and people would still vote for him? Well, if he would try to shoot somebody in the middle of the street here in South Carolina, we would return fire. And that is what I intend to do today."

“Don’t attack with anger, just quote the terrible, terrible things he says about specific people and larger groups. It is not right what he says, and on some level most Trump supporters know it. Make fun of his self-importance and self-regard. Take on the Great Pumpkin far away in Mar-a-Lago. Show that he’s out of control, that he has no rails, no boundaries. Quote the past few days’ overnight rants on social media. Let the audience draw the conclusion about whether this man should be returned to the presidency." Quote his former chiefs of staff and cabinet secretaries who say he has no business in the Oval Office. “Let that settle in."

More: “Don’t be strident, don’t strain your voice, don’t try too hard. When I was writing for Ronald Reagan, I would give him a sure-fire, tough applause line, and he would often deliver it gently, seeking no applause. And yet it landed, and he looked the stronger, the bigger and the more genial for it. Don’t yell at Trump, be sad for him."

“Let me talk about stereotypes, as unfair as they are, because some voters think in them. You are the Asian girl in the front of the class with her hand up. You’re smart, you did the work. Trump is the blond jock in the back, cracking jokes and popping gum. Gently smack that gum out of his mouth. Have some fun going after him, not in a Chris Christie perturbed way but as someone who seems to enjoy the give and take of battle."

Another thought: Admit you are not as entertaining or maybe exciting as he is, but that’s OK, you’re running not to entertain but to lead. A rabid squirrel in a chemistry lab is exciting to watch but can do a lot of damage. You believe in old-fashioned values like professionalism and capability. “I am here to capably close the border. Wouldn’t that be the real excitement? I’m here to capably force the executive agencies to end their woke, partisan nonsense. Wouldn’t it be exciting if somebody got that done?" “Doing the real job of the presidency so that the American people benefit actually is exciting." Perhaps one day when she worked for Mr. Trump she saw the blubbery self-pity kick in; perhaps she wanted to shake him by the shoulders and say snap out of it, we have a country to save.

Mr. Trump is currently in a rage cycle and Ms. Haley is likely expecting a new nickname—Tricky Nikki, whatever. But nothing is below Mr. Trump and he may go more off-color than that. Staff can respond, but a reporter will catch Ms. Haley going into an event and demand reaction. Landon suggests, in a confiding tone, “Yes. I heard Stormy Daniels gave him that."

Don’t be afraid of pulling the heart strings. You’re home in the state that made you. The people you’re talking to are your fellow Republicans. Whatever they decide you’ll always remember you were a child there, a student, a young bride. You are of them. Landon likes “When I walk into that old White House, I will be thinking of one of our state mottos, ‘While I breathe.’ While I breathe, I’ll be thanking you for how you prepared me for this moment."

“You can’t go wrong with gratitude, and grace for that matter, which are concepts her opponent does not grasp."

Landon once told me of a difference between writing for women in public life and for men. Men like to tell personal and emotional stories because they think it means they’re sensitive. Women are more likely to fear it will make them look weak—“She got all weepy."

Ms. Haley, he suspects, may be reticent in part because she was trained as an accountant—just the numbers, please. His advice: “Slow down your pace, soften your voice, tell an honest story. That is what people want, not the grandiosity of the man you are running against. Nikki, it’s time to go to your core."

 

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