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Is Nikki Haley morphing into a presidency-losing Mitt Romney?

Is Nikki Haley morphing into a presidency-losing Mitt Romney?
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During the 2012 presidential primary season, and again in the general election against President Obama, Republican Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGraham: Trump can make GOP bigger, stronger, or he 'could destroy it' Democratic centrists flex power on Biden legislation Ron Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many MORE struck a number of voters as a man with malleable convictions. 

Although many saw him as a decent person, he could come across as a political opportunist who considered his election to the White House as the final rung on the ladder for a super-rich guy with massive personal success. Romney lost that election, of course, but went on to become a U.S. senator from Utah.            

Now, Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyTrump was unhinged and unchanged at CPAC The Memo: Is Trump mounting a comeback — or finally fading? Haley praises Trump CPAC speech after breaking with him over Capitol riot MORE, the former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor, appears to be taking tentative first steps toward a presidential run in 2024. Some in the GOP — and most assuredly, elsewhere — may be wondering if the “Mitt Romney malleable problem” will settle around her neck like a political albatross.           

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In a “why-would-Haley-agree-to-it” interview with Politico, writer Tim Alberta underscores Haley’s building malleable reputation. He salts the mine with this: “Haley’s raw skills obscure an absence of core beliefs. … She doesn’t know which Nikki Haley will be on the ballot. … She built a reputation for demanding loyalty but rarely giving it.”           

A number of Republicans likely are discussing these critiques as well.        

To be sure, Haley does not help herself with — among other wobbles — her weather-vane opinions of former President TrumpDonald TrumpUS, South Korea reach agreement on cost-sharing for troops Graham: Trump can make GOP bigger, stronger, or he 'could destroy it' Biden nominates female generals whose promotions were reportedly delayed under Trump MORE. Her dance of praising Trump, criticizing Trump, praising Trump, then lighting Trump on fire certainly can be seen as trying to walk the tightrope between liberal and conservative voters. She wants those on the left to like her, but doesn’t want to lose Trump’s supporters.            

Unfortunately for Haley, many people will see this as a transparent, politically expedient move — and it’s one that papers over her true strengths and values.        

Haley does have a great many strengths and rock-solid values, all honed by an inspiring personal life story. Of the two latest books she authored — “Can’t is not an Option: My American Story” (2012) and “With All Due Respect: Defending America with Grit and Grace” (2019) — I found the former to be much more informative, relatable, humble and inspiring.    

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With all due respect, much of her latter book came across as the kind of obligatory prose most politicians who think about running for president will crank out. And such a pedestrian ploy could make some voters question Haley’s authenticity.          

But the opening words of her 2012 book set her apart from the political norm: “I am the proud daughter of Indian parents who reminded us every day how blessed we are to live in this country.” She goes on to recount how her hard-working parents taught her to be herself, and to be tough in the face of inequality and prejudice. 

“Just be yourself” is a phrase that each of us hears at some point while growing up. Some take the words to heart; others do not. Typical politicians almost never follow the “Just be yourself” rule. They’re too busy trying to pretend to be what they or their advisers believe voters want them to be.         

Which brings us back to Donald Trump.           

The massive mistake that Trump made, because of his towering ego, was believing that he won in 2016 because he’s Donald Trump. His most fanatical supporters made that mistake, too, perhaps because they ignored basic human nature. They may not have understood the electoral process, or they simply swallowed Trump’s fables whole.         

Trump didn’t win because he’s Trump. He won because tens of millions of voters were sick and tired of typical politicians lying to them while their livelihoods, personal security and children’s future well-being went from bad to worse. They were willing to take a chance on anyone unaffiliated with Washington.       

Trump was lightning in a bottle, flashing blindingly bright at just the right moment. He may have been the charge, but he was not the catalyst. Political incompetence and Washington corruption gave birth to Trump’s presidency.           

Nikki Haley would be well-served to remember that. In her interview with Politico, she takes a weak rhetorical swipe at Trump but, in doing so, raises more questions about her judgment than about his flaws and missteps. “We need to acknowledge he let us down,” she said. “He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”      

Okay, if Trump went “down a path he shouldn’t have,” the questions for Haley become: “Why did you follow him? Why did you listen to him?” Assuming Haley includes herself in her admonishment, shouldn’t her own principles, ideals and convictions have acted as a moral compass to guide her away from that crumbling path?        

As a public servant, Haley has much to offer the nation. But she needs to ditch the high-priced advice she gets, the faux-outrage applause lines and the focus group nonsense, and remember what the American people are desperate to witness: the earliest, most genuine version of her. She was a candidate, once upon a time, who was “one of them,” who understood Americans’ troubled lives, before the political androids got hold of her and ran her through the Mitt Romney Morph Machine.

Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration.