Brummett Online

OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Who can save us now? Not Haley

This is a rewrite. The advance text I wrote in the afternoon in expectation of what would happen in the New Hampshire Republican primary didn't quite hold up to the facts that unfolded in the evening.

They'll hold up in the longer run.

That's kind of a New Hampshire thing--surprises born of cussed independence.

Donald Trump didn't lock down the nomination quite yet, as the afternoon draft predicted. Chris Christie was not shown to have been fully right quite yet--as the afternoon draft predicted--in his hot-mic declaration that Nikki Haley is not up to the task.

What happened Tuesday in New Hampshire was that Trump won big as expected among Republicans, who were enthusiastic for him. But Haley won big among a heavy turnout of "undeclared voters," or conservatively inclined independents, who were allowed to vote and who told exit pollsters they had scant enthusiasm in their vote for Haley, a default choice, but plenty for their vote against Trump.

That means nothing for the vast Republican primary to come. Trump still looks certain to win it. But he can't accept coronation just yet, though he may demand it. And that's good. Republicans at least need an option of record if Trump goes to jail mid-primary, not that Republicans would exercise the option.

Those undeclared votes for Haley cast of enmity toward Trump were not from Democrats, who cannot vote in New Hampshire in a Republican primary, no matter what the chronically dishonest Trump is saying.

It occurred to me Tuesday night to call them, just for Arkansas fun, Asa Hutchinson voters, who don't exist literally.

Figuratively, they are people who could vote in the primary election for Haley but never for Trump, and who, in the fall, will either vote against Trump again; or stay home because Joe Biden and Democrats have nothing for them; or take an unintended Trump-helping shine to someone like Joe Manchin running as a No Labels candidate and costing Biden more votes than Trump.

As to Haley not being up to it: She had all the money she needed, thanks to the Koch brothers' conservative empire that settled on her as the best prospect to beat the dreaded Trump. But that made her seem like a corporate tool, an establishment tool.

She had the backing of the popular governor, Chris Sununu. But that made her seem like a candidate dependent on backers desperate to find an acceptable warm body to challenge Trump, rather than one standing on her own.

She came into New Hampshire with tepid momentum because she couldn't beat Ron DeSantis for second place in Iowa. She seemed so uninspiring out of Iowa that beating her only narrowly there was a contributing factor to DeSantis' withdrawal.

Haley committed in the New Hampshire campaign at least one tactical error and probably two.

The clear one was to decline to engage in a televised debate in New Hampshire if Trump wasn't going to show up. She didn't want to endure another evening of DeSantis' desperate attacks that would distract from the two-person battle with Trump she wanted to fashion.

New Hampshire likes debates. There was Ronald Reagan saying "I paid for this microphone" to win there after losing Iowa to George H.W. Bush. There was Hillary Clinton becoming emotional after losing in Iowa to Barack Obama, then winning in New Hampshire.

Haley's probable error, at least for New Hampshire, was in trying to finesse the matter of Trump's atrociousness--to try to stay acceptable to his base while moving gently toward the Trump-disapproving center.

Most of Christie's pre-dropout 12 percent in the state was fervently anti-Trump. Haley couldn't tap-dance her way to picking much of it up.

Finesse is impossible in the contemporary Republican Party.

Being the Republican candidate least detested by Democrats, and potentially stronger in the general election, offered Haley no advantage. Instead, it placed a burden.

Many modern-day Republicans measure their candidates by how much Democrats hate them. And many think Trump is plenty electable considering that, in their view, he won the last general election and got cheated.

Haley never had a real path, even if she had won New Hampshire. She is way behind Trump in her home state of South Carolina, where she was governor. Then, Super Tuesday is designed for a universally known celebrity front-runner like Trump.

As Democratic political operative Donna Brazile put it on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, Trump is not so much running a campaign as leading a growing movement.

She didn't say what the movement was toward. I think it's against government, against the mainstream media, against higher education, against cultural wokeness and elitism, and for walls and barbed wire on the Mexican border.

Only those "non-declared" anti-Trumpers can save us. They couldn't outnumber Republicans in the New Hampshire Republican primary on Tuesday night. But they can pair with Democrats to outnumber Republicans nationwide in November.

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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