Nikki Haley and the Power of Cowardice
Chris Christie is right about her gutlessness. But that’s how she got where she is.
CHRIS SUNUNU, THE GOVERNOR OF NEW HAMPSHIRE, has a message for Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey: Get out of the Republican presidential race.
Sununu wants Christie to step aside so that Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, can face Donald Trump one-on-one in the New Hampshire primary. But Christie has concerns about Haley. Last week, when Haley was asked at a New Hampshire town hall what had caused the Civil War, she didn’t mention slavery. Christie pounced on her non-answer, arguing that it was part of a broader character flaw: She often lacks the courage to tell uncomfortable truths.
Sununu thinks Christie should set aside this concern and support Haley based on a political calculation. On Sunday, in a CNN interview, Sununu was asked about Christie’s criticism of Haley. Sununu dismissed it as a loser’s complaint. Christie’s candidacy “is at an absolute dead end. He’s going to say anything he can,” Sununu scoffed. “He says he wants to stay in the race to speak the truth about Trump, but that translating to votes in a primary is a very different thing. And he’s hit a ceiling.”
The ceiling is Trump’s popularity in the GOP, which limits the viability of any anti-Trump candidate. Christie has “really upset all the pro-Trump people,” Sununu observed. By contrast, Haley has managed not to antagonize too many pro-Trump voters. This has allowed her to get within striking distance of the former president. With a boost from Christie, Sununu suggested, she could “make up five or ten points” and beat Trump in the primary.
“I think he’s a smart guy. He wants to have a voice in this party,” Sununu said of Christie. “So I just think he’s going to make the right decision in the end. He wants to make sure this party comes together.”
That’s the political case for Haley: Consolidate behind her because she, unlike Christie, can attract enough Trump-sympathetic voters to win the primary. And the reason she can attract those voters is that she doesn’t tell them what they don’t want to hear.
In other words, Christie is right. She’s a coward. The political case for Haley is the moral case against her.
SUNUNU IS CORRECT ABOUT the political situation in New Hampshire. Haley has a much better chance than Christie to catch Trump, because she’s been far more deferential to Trump and his sympathizers.
In a December CBS News poll, only 38 percent of likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters said they were considering or might consider voting for Christie. But 67 percent said they were considering or might consider voting for Haley. That was the highest score among any of the candidates.
In a December poll by the Saint Anselm College Survey Center, 59 percent of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire expressed a favorable view of Trump. Among this majority, 0 percent named Christie as the candidate they were most likely to vote for in the primary. But 12 percent named Haley—again, the highest score for any non-Trump candidate.
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In November, when a University of New Hampshire/CNN poll asked likely Republican primary voters which candidates they would never vote for, 47 percent named Christie; only 24 percent named Haley. Among respondents who had voted for Trump in the 2020 general election, 60 percent said they would never vote for Christie; only 29 percent said they would never vote for Haley. Among those who supported Trump in the 2024 primary, 75 percent said they would never vote for Christie; only 37 percent said they would never vote for Haley.
Another November survey, this one by Monmouth University, asked potential Republican primary voters in the Granite State to name their first- and second-choice candidates. Among respondents who identified themselves as MAGA supporters—about half the sample—Haley was the first choice of 4 percent and the second choice of 14 percent. Christie’s numbers, on the same question, were zero and zero. Haley’s net favorability rating among MAGA supporters was plus-7. Christie’s rating was an almost comical minus-78.
Christie often points out that in August, during the first GOP debate, Haley raised her hand to affirm that she would support Trump for president even if he were convicted of crimes. But that affirmation has paid off. In a November survey by Emerson College, 80 percent of New Hampshire Republican primary voters said they would “still vote for Donald Trump if he is convicted in a criminal trial.” Among this group, only 1 percent named Christie as their first choice in the primary; 3 percent named him as their second choice. Haley did much better, with 6 percent naming her as their first choice and 16 percent as their second choice.
HALEY DIDN’T EARN this favorable consideration from the MAGA base by accident. She did it by sucking up and avoiding conflict. Watch the video of her response to the Civil War question: She bobbed, weaved, and asked the questioner what he wanted to hear. “What do you think the cause of the Civil War was?” she inquired. When he noted that she had failed to mention slavery, she asked—in a perfect encapsulation of her pandering style—“What do you want me to say about slavery?”
The next day, at another town hall, a 9-year-old boy asked Haley why she had abandoned her moral opposition to Trump in 2016 and whether, if she were president, she would pardon him. Haley ducked the question about 2016, affirmed that she would pardon Trump (“so that we can move on as a country,” she explained), and positioned herself in the middle: “Anti-Trumpers think I don’t hate him enough. And pro-Trumpers think I don’t love him enough.” Haley argued that Christie was too hostile to the former president. “Chris is obsessed with Trump,” she said. “I’m thinking bigger than that.”
But the events of the last week have discredited that portrayal of the Haley-Christie fight. In his rebuke of Haley, Christie didn’t start with her reticence about Trump. He started with her evasive answer about the Civil War, and he connected this to other issues. “She’s unwilling to offend anyone by telling the truth,” said Christie. “She isn’t willing to say the same things about abortion in New Hampshire that she says in Iowa.” He argued that Haley’s servility to Trump—“She says he was the right president for the right time”—was part of a larger pattern.
Haley isn’t completely spineless. Like her fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Lindsey Graham, she cares about foreign policy and is willing to stick up, even in an increasingly isolationist party, for allies such as Ukraine. But there’s no issue on which Haley is braver than Christie. And on too many issues, she folds.
WHEN SUNUNU ADVISES CHRISTIE to “make a quick calculation” and bow out so that “this party comes together”—and so that Christie can continue to “have a voice in this party”—he isn’t just telling Christie to yield to Haley. He’s inviting Christie to be more like her. He’s encouraging Christie to practice the same craven self-preservation that gave Trump power over the GOP in the first place.
So far, Christie isn’t budging. In a new TV ad, he asks: “What kind of president do we want: a liar or someone who’s got the guts to tell the truth?” All the evidence I’ve seen indicates that Republican voters would rather have a liar. But it’s better to lose to that candidate than to be her.