Next month’s election could deliver a close enough result that it will be very difficult for the House of Representatives to organize itself and elect a speaker.
If the House deadlocks, the Constitution allows the body to select a non-member to serve as speaker and run the place. It’s never happened before, but at the beginning of this century, few thought figures such as Barack Obama or Donald Trump could ever be elected president.
On Capitol Hill, there are whispers that a surprise candidate for speaker could be Nikki Haley, the retiring United Nations ambassador and former South Carolina governor. In a Quinnipiac poll earlier this year, she won approval from 75 percent of Republicans, 63 percent of independents, and 55 percent of Democrats. Those kinds of golden political numbers could do much good in these divisive times.
For Haley, it would be a risky career move, but in the current poisonous and polarizing climate, her talents could help heal the country and ensure that Congress actually does something constructive over the next two years. From her vantage point, there would be much risk but also big potential rewards on the national stage.
First, let’s consider the possibility that the Democrats take control of the House but with a fragile majority or that the GOP hangs on, but by only a couple of seats. Both parties might find it hard to elect a speaker by traditional means.
Some dozen incumbent House Democrats have announced they won’t support the 78-year-old Nancy Pelosi for speaker, claiming that she is either too liberal for them or that the party needs new blood. More than 70 Democratic House candidates are saying the same thing. Pelosi is confident she can strong-arm enough Democratic members to win the required House majority of 218 members. But if the division between the parties is as close as it got in 2000, when the GOP held only 221 out of 435 seats, that could be a tall order.
The GOP front-runner for speaker, majority leader Kevin McCarthy, has a similar problem, though it’s not as serious. The House Freedom Caucus, a rambunctious group of 33 GOP members, includes several Republicans who think that McCarthy is too moderate; they could refuse to vote for him.
The Constitution is silent on how the House speaker is chosen. It was Thomas Jefferson who came up with the current procedure. Each party caucuses to pick a candidate. Then the House votes on the two nominees. Traditionally, it’s been a party-line vote, but discipline has been slipping. In 2015, when Paul Ryan was first elected speaker, he lost nine GOP votes. Nancy Pelosi lost three Democrats.
If the House finds it difficult to choose a speaker, pick a non-polarizing figure such as Ambassador Haley to help end the dysfunction and perhaps repair Congress’s dismal image.
Several members of Congress met recently to discuss a Plan B in the event that traditional means of electing a speaker do not suffice. One recalled that in 1984, GOP members seriously discussed running Ronald Reagan’s then–U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick against Democrat Tip O’Neill. Kirkpatrick, then still a Democrat, was, like Nikki Haley, wildly popular for her robust defense of U.S. interests on the international stage.
But unlike Kirkpatrick, who, after the U.N., shrank from any role in politics, Haley clearly hopes to have a future in politics. Earlier this month she delivered a speech at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, a famous annual gathering of media and political elites in New York City. She won the crowd over first with self-deprecating jokes and mild jibes at her boss, President Trump. But then she turned serious and concluded with words that many politically exhausted Americans could welcome:
In our toxic political life, I’ve heard some people in both parties describe their opponents as enemies or evil. In America, our political opponents are not evil. In South Sudan, where rape is routinely used as a weapon of war, that is evil. In Syria, where the dictator uses chemical weapons to murder innocent children, that is evil. In North Korea, where American student Otto Warmbier was tortured to death, that was evil. In the last two years, I’ve seen true evil. We have some serious political differences here at home. But our opponents are not evil, they’re just our opponents.
Everyone in the audience probably believed that while Haley was speaking about both parties, her comments were a veiled criticism of Trump. The president frequently refers to adversaries as if they were some kind of domestic version of President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.” But Haley managed to finesse her position. After announcing her departure from the U.N., she basked in a warm send-off from Trump in the Oval Office. Then she delivered her zingers at the Al Smith dinner without a single angry tweet from Trump aimed at her.
Haley currently wins the support of the Trump base and much of the rest of the country like no other figure. As Chris Cillizza of CNN noted about her U.N. service, “somewhat amazingly, she emerged almost entirely unscathed.” He speculated that she has a path to the Republican nomination in 2024 — whether Trump wins or loses in 2020. But she must continue, he said, “to refine the idea that while she was proud to work for Trump — and embraces some of his policies — she is not a carbon copy of him.” Witness her outspoken and quick condemnation of the violence last year in Charlottesville, which Trump didn’t handle well at all.
But Haley needs more than just a “kinder and gentler” approach to politics. Vice President Mike Pence has gathered dozens of chits from elected Republicans, and he will inherit Trump’s political machine and must be considered the GOP front-runner once Trump leaves the presidential stage. Haley needs to find a way to remain part of the national political conversation after her role at the United Nations. Becoming a university president or head of a think tank for five years might not cut it. She may have to consider something meatier if it’s offered — such as the House speakership.
Although I was thrilled when Nikki Haley beat the political machines of both parties to become South Carolina governor in 2010, I was critical of her during her first term for accommodating herself too much to the state’s power structure. Her approval ratings dropped below 40 percent. In a January 2012 article for National Review, I quoted Mark Sanford, her predecessor as governor, as saying, “She’s on the cover of national magazines, her book will be out in April — I think it can be confusing, and all this has led her to punt on some of the really big issues she ran on.”
Haley didn’t take kindly to my article, fixing me with her steely eyes at a Club for Growth meeting and telling me, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to prove you wrong.”
And she largely has. She won reelection with 56 percent of the vote in 2014, in a state that Donald Trump carried against Hillary Clinton with only 55 percent. In 2016, as she prepared to pack her bags for New York City, her approval ratings sometimes exceeded 80 percent.
Those who bet that Nikki Haley will remain in the private sector after she leaves office are probably holding a losing lottery ticket. She has fans everywhere. Take Congress. In 2016, when House Speaker Paul Ryan helped select Haley to deliver the GOP response to President Obama’s final State of the Union address, Ryan issued a statement: “In a year when the country is crying out for a positive vision and alternative to the status quo, Governor Haley is the exact right choice.”
If the House is almost evenly divided come January and looks ungovernable, those words could prove prescient in a different context.