Give Distinction a Chance
Early GOP primary hopefuls are afraid to describe their policy differences with Trump.
Last week in my column on Nikki Haley, I touched on the presidential candidate’s awkward refusal, when asked point blank by Sean Hannity, to distinguish herself on issues or policies from Donald Trump.
In case you haven’t seen the exchange, she did it not just once…
… but a second time (just a couple minutes later)…
“I don’t kick sideways, I’m kicking forward.”
This was especially embarrassing considering that the interview took place on the same day Haley announced her candidacy. She had ginned up a lot of attention hours earlier, and now had a big opportunity in front of probably two or three million Republican voters to make her case for why she is the best choice to be the party’s nominee. And she refused to distinguish herself from the GOP front-runner on a single policy position?
As of the time I’m writing this, Haley has continued to dodge this question in interviews, and is taking a lot of criticism over it. One would think that other GOP hopefuls are assuredly learning from this apparent mistep, and are making sure they avoid it. Right?
Below was Tim Scott the other night, on the same show, in front of the same host. Let’s see how he did:
Sweet Jehoshaphat! Seriously?
Scott not only dodged the question, but took the opportunity to lavish praise on a guy who spent his last months in office trying to overturn U.S. democracy, provoking a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and bundling up hundreds of classified documents for a trip down to Mar-a-Lago.
As with Haley, Hannity afforded Scott a second chance to answer. And… you can probably guess how that turned out.
What’s particularly degrading about this is that Haley and Scott both have legitimate answers to that question. They’re just afraid to speak them, in the context of differentiating themselves from Trump, in front of a Trumpy base.
As A.B. Stoddard told Bernie and me on this week’s No BS Zone video-cast, one such issue is the Russia/Ukraine conflict, in which Haley in particular — when asked about it separately — has been crystal clear in her denouncements of Russia and support for Ukraine.
And as more traditional Republicans, one would think it wouldn’t be at all difficult for Haley and Scott to position themselves as fiscal conservatives in contrast with a guy who presided over $7.8 trillion in debt (in just four years), and got us into a self-defeating trade-war that raised taxes and prices, and drove federal subsidies through the roof.
Did these two think President Biden’s Afghanistan policy was fine? Because Trump’s the guy who came up with it, set it in motion, and vowed to complete it (far more hastily than Biden did) had he been re-elected. The results were predictably catastrophic, as top military advisors in both administrations warned. It sure seems like that would be a distinction worth mentioning, along with Russia/Ukraine, Trump’s betrayal of our Kurdish allies in Syria, and other elements of his foreign policy (including repeatedly throwing the CIA under the bus).
Were these two satisfied with the federal government’s executive response to the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic? No one else in the Republican party seems to have been. We’ve heard for years just how terrible (and downright sinister) top federal health agencies, top federal advisors, and top federal coordinators were. We’ve heard all about the crippling federal messaging, restrictions, and guidelines. What about the lack of accountability (and even answers) for China’s role in the crisis? Can Haley and Scott not find a way to criticize the choices of the guy who called the shots and enacted the policies during that first year, and explain what they would have done differently?
This stuff shouldn’t be that hard to say out loud. It shouldn’t be at all difficult to point out where they differ from Trump on policy, especially when it’s Trump’s performative antics and attitude — not his policy positions — that keep him so popular with the base. Instead, at this point, Haley and Scott are relying on generational and ethnic differences as their key selling points. And I can’t for the life of me figure out why they think that will be enough to tip the scales in their favor. Unless, of course, they’re not really in it to win it.
I keep having to remind myself, as I voice these frustrations, that we’re still very early in this process (heck, Tim Scott hasn’t even officially entered the race yet, though all indications are that he will). I assure you that I get that, and understand that things may well change.
It’s just chronically disheartening to watch a once strong party, that prided itself on rugged individualism and a pro-freedom platform, remain so beholden to someone as unpatriotic and unworthy of public service as Donald Trump. It’s bad enough that people like Haley and Scott are too afraid denounce the man’s absence of character and profound anti-democratic efforts.
But a crippling fear of even putting forth a simple policy disagreement? Such cowardice is astonishing.