Brummett Online

OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Nikki’s self-inflicted wound

Nikki Haley got asked last week to tell the cause of the Civil War. She did not mention the cause in her answer.

That cause was that white rulers in the South kept blacks in bondage. It was slavery.

Haley talked about some other blah-blah.

Donald Trump once said there were good people on both sides in Charlottesville, where one of the sides was neo-Nazi.

Trump sustained heavy criticism (he always sustains heavy criticism), but hardly a political hiccup. Haley, they are saying, has lost vital momentum, which had her making moves toward being the lone credible Republican challenger to Trump.

The difference seems to be that she "walked back" her gaffe, clumsily trying to acknowledge slavery as the cause. Trump, as ever, didn't take back or revise diddly.

Voters on both sides, but especially the Republican side, want people who say what they mean and mean what they say. They don't care what the Sunday morning media roundtable on television thinks about it.

Haley appeared to be a practitioner of politics as usual, which is universally disdained in the Trump base that amounts to a Republican majority currently. She appeared to be cowed by the hated media.

She could have capped her damage by not speaking of the question again except to say that she said what she said and was moving on from an overblown moment. Instead, she tried to temporize, contextualize and essentially apologize.

She looked, and was, wishy-washy. She appeared to have achieved the spotlight and not been ready for it.

What harmed her was the very thing I had found encouraging in her candidacy.

I longed for conventional conservatism and regular politics on the dysfunctional, resentment-based Republican side, which is mostly a cult of Trump personality anymore.

I sought a sane conservatism with which I would disagree but that I would not fear on account of megalomaniacal madness and as a threat to our democratic republic.

I was looking for a Mitt Romney or a Jeb Bush.

The current Republican/Trump base calls those losers, or worse.

I can hear Haley's campaign advisers now. They were telling her she was doing well, running a highly disciplined campaign. They were telling her that her advantages were her steadiness and saneness as a contrast first to Trump but also to her other rivals--Ron DeSantis, mainly.

But they were telling her she'd milked about all she could from being the Republican candidate that Democrats opposed least.

They were telling her that the outright anti-Trump candidates--Chris Christie and our forgotten favorite son, Asa Hutchinson--had come to a combined 8 percent. They were saying direct criticism of Trump was not the way to go--that benign reference to contrast was the ticket--because direct attacks on Trump gained nothing and risked much.

They were pointing out that the combined Trump-DeSantis poll numbers--the crazed right combined with the hard, hard right--came to nearly 70 percent. They were saying that whatever she might pick up now would have to come from that. They were saying she really needed to beat DeSantis for second in Iowa, go from there to New Hampshire and maybe contend even to win, then hope to goodness she could hold her own against Trump in her own state, South Carolina.

The way to do that now, they were telling her, was to sidle away from looking like the most moderate candidate--for that couldn't do her any good in the general election if she didn't get there.

They were saying she needed to start playing a strong right-wing hand for the Iowa-New Hampshire stretch run.

So, with her head filled with all of that, she got asked at a rally for her view on the cause of the Civil War. She probably thought she was dealing with a planted question, one trying to get her to condemn the slavery that many contemporary right-wing Republicans--DeSantis for one--oppose mentioning in school.

She later got a question challenging her to repudiate Trump and say she'd never be his running mate. The question merely invited her to alienate herself from the voting base her advisers were saying she needed to infiltrate.

So, she didn't repudiate anything. She blundered.

A better way out of that question was to say she didn't embrace words forced on her and that her own words were that she is a better choice than Trump for the nomination. She could have said a more relevant question would concern her choices for a running mate.

It's probably a one-candidate race now. It probably already and always was.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett feed on X, formerly Twitter.

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