Nikki Haley’s Dilemma Is Also the Republicans’ Problem

If the former ambassador is having trouble figuring out a position that pleases both anti-abortion partisans and ordinary voters, so are her GOP rivals.

A photo of Ambassador Nikki Haley
Reynolds / AFP / Getty

Republicans have had 10 months to hammer out a coherent post-Roe message on abortion. You would think they’d have nailed it by now.

Yet on Tuesday, Nikki Haley set out to declare her position on the issue—and proceeded to be about as clear as concrete.

She began with plausible precision. “I want to save as many lives and help as many moms as possible,” the former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations told reporters gathered at the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America headquarters, in Northern Virginia—a press event billed as a “major policy speech.” But her statements quickly got squishier. It’s good that some states have passed anti-abortion laws in the past year, she said. And as for the states that have reacted by enshrining abortion-rights protections? Well, she wishes “that weren’t the case.”

And then she seemed to channel Veep’s Selina Meyer. “Different people in different places are taking different paths,” Haley said, with a self-assurance that belied the indeterminacy of her words.

Questioning whether any national anti-abortion legislation would ever pass, Haley did gesture at a need for some action. “To do that at the federal level, the next president must find national consensus,” she said. As for what that might look like, she had no words. And she took no questions.

Some people seemed to like Haley’s speech, in a tepid way. She sounded human when she described how her husband had been adopted, and how she’d struggled with infertility. “Ms. Haley deserves credit for confronting the subject head on, with a speech that wasn’t sanctimonious or censorious,” The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board wrote, before concluding, “The party could do worse than Ms. Haley’s pitch.” But it could do better—or at least do with something more specific.

Leaders of the self-described pro-life movement were predictably annoyed at Haley’s conciliatory-sounding vagueness. “Disappointing speech by @NikkiHaley today. Leads with compromise & defeatism, not vision & courage,” Lila Rose, who heads the group Live Action, tweeted. “We agree that consensus is important, but to achieve consensus we will need to stake out a principled position,” wrote Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life of America.

Even Haley’s hosts seemed on the wrong page. “We are clear on Ambassador Haley’s commitment to acting on the American consensus against late-term abortion by protecting unborn children by at least 15 weeks,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said in a statement sent to me. But a few hours later, Team Haley emailed me to correct the record: “She committed to working to find a consensus on banning late-term abortion. No specific weeks,” Nachama Soloveichik, Haley’s communications director, wrote. Not only did Haley alienate both sides—she confused them!

Haley is in a tough spot, as are all of the Republican presidential wannabes. They each have their own personal convictions on abortion; former Vice President Mike Pence, for example, has been outspoken in his support for a national ban. But they’re up against an issue that seems to have cost their party a string of recent elections. Most Americans believe that abortion should be accessible, with some limits.

The “consensus” position, then, is somewhere in the foggy zone between no abortion ever and abortion whenever. But primary elections tend to push candidates toward one extreme or another. “The gap between what the base demands and what swing voters will tolerate has gotten really wide,” Sarah Longwell, the publisher of the Never Trump site The Bulwark, told me. “Nowhere is this more true than on abortion.”

What all politicians need to do “is settle on a position they believe they can defend, and they need to repeat it consistently and clearly,” Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist, told me. “Any politician whose position on abortion is vague will be wrapped around the axle eventually with questions and doubts about where they actually stand.”

Some GOP candidates have followed Ayres’s advice. But much axle-wrapping has occurred already in the early days of the 2024 primary season.

Asked on the campaign trail whether he’d support a 15-week federal ban on abortion, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina told CBS, “I do believe that we should have a robust conversation about what’s happening on a very important topic,” before pivoting so hard to an anecdote about Janet Yellen that I thought he’d need a neck brace. In a follow-up interview, Scott backtracked, clarifying that as president, he would “literally sign the most conservative pro-life legislation” Congress sent to his desk.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is expected to mount a presidential bid, did approve a very conservative state law recently—a six-week abortion ban. But he signed that legislation in the dead of night earlier this month, while most people in Tallahassee were probably in bed. (By contrast, last year, he celebrated the signing of a 15-week ban with a big party at a church.) The following day, DeSantis gave a speech at a Christian university full of students who are opposed to abortion, yet said nothing about his major legislative achievement. He’s mostly stayed quiet about it since—even at glad-handing events in early primary states.

So far, the only confirmed presidential candidate who seems clear on his position and keenly aware of the political optics is Donald Trump. Despite being hailed by anti-abortion activists as the “most pro-life president” in history, Trump has never been rigid on abortion (probably because he supported abortion rights for most of his life as a public figure), and he doesn’t talk much about the issue now. But a spokesperson told The Washington Post recently that Trump “believes that the Supreme Court, led by the three Justices which he supported, got it right when they ruled this is an issue that should be decided at the State level.” Shorter Trump: I’ve done my bit—it’s up to the states now. God bless.

If any national consensus on abortion exists, the GOP strategist Ayres said, Trump’s position “is pretty close” to it. Trump has always seemed to have “a lizard-brain sense of where the voters are,” Longwell said. “He has a relationship to the base, and he doesn’t have to pitch what he believes.” And, unlike DeSantis, Trump has never signed a law banning abortion at any stage, so it’ll be harder to pin him down. Sure, there’s an activist class that would like to see abortion banned in all cases. To them, Trump could reply, You got your justices. You’re welcome.

Right now Trump and his lizard brain have a commanding lead in the GOP primary. His victory would set up an interesting general-election situation—a fitting one for our complicated post-Roe country: a former president who once personally supported abortion rights and is now politically opposed to them running against a sitting president whose own position on abortion is the exact opposite.

Until a Republican presidential nominee emerges, we’ll hear many more Haley-esque platitudes that sound thoughtful and weighty but ultimately aren’t.

“Whether we can save more lives nationally depends entirely on doing what no one has done to date,” Haley told reporters on Tuesday, before wrapping up her speech with—you could almost hear a drumroll—“finding consensus.” The waffling will continue, in other words, until the primary concludes.