primary politics

In electability pitch, Nikki Haley tests out ‘consensus’ line on abortion

'Whether we can save more lives nationally depends entirely on doing what no one has done to date – finding consensus,' the former U.N. ambassador said in a speech in Virginia

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Republican U.S. Presidential candidate, former South Carolina Governor and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, delivers a major policy speech on abortion on April 25, 2023 in Arlington, Virginia.

In declaring that she will reach for “consensus” in her first major policy speech to address abortion on Tuesday, Nikki Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, sent a clear message that she hopes to be seen as the GOP candidate best positioned to challenge President Joe Biden in the 2024 election.

Even as Haley emphasized that she is unapologetically “pro-life,” the 51-year-old Republican suggested that she would embrace a more pragmatic approach to abortion — in what doubled as an electability pitch that drew a contrast with GOP rivals who are embracing more conservative positions.

“You don’t save any lives if you can’t enact your position into law, and you can’t do that unless you find consensus,” Haley said during a 20-minute speech at the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America headquarters in Northern Virginia. “Reaching consensus starts with humanizing, not demonizing. Just like I have my story, I respect everyone who has their story. I don’t judge someone who is pro-choice any more than I want them to judge me for being pro-life.”

Haley, who served as governor of South Carolina, noted that “each state is finding its own consensus, as it should,” while adding that a national abortion ban is “not going to happen.” 

She indicated broadly, however, that there is a “federal role” in addressing the procedure. “Whether we can save more lives nationally depends entirely on doing what no one has done to date – finding consensus,” Haley said, returning to her central theme. “That’s what I will strive to do.”

Haley’s attempt to strike a pragmatic tone without offering policy specifics, however, risked giving the appearance that she’s playing politics on an issue in which voters have deeply held moral views. “I’m not certain this debate is going to be solved by tone because there are actual specific governing questions that people have,” said Republican strategist Scott Jennings, a CNN commentator and adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

In a statement last week, SBA Pro-Life America vowed to “oppose any presidential candidate who refuses to embrace at a minimum a 15-week national standard” for abortion — ruling out former President Donald Trump for claiming that the issue should be decided at the state level.

Haley did not explicitly commit to any standard on Tuesday, despite a follow-up statement from SBA Pro-Life America that lauded the former ambassador for her “commitment” to a limit of “at least 15 weeks.”

Eric Tanenblatt, a Republican fundraiser in Atlanta who is supporting Haley’s presidential campaign, said he believed that the speech had made Haley “more relatable,” as other opponents have struggled to address abortion in recent weeks.

“It was refreshing to hear a candidate articulate their views but not do it in a way that alienates independents and women,” he said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Tuesday. “I think if people saw her remarks today, they would be very pleased.”

While the Iowa caucuses are not until next February, Haley, a pro-Israel stalwart who has long been popular among Jewish Republicans, has so far struggled to break out in public polling.

The address came as some GOP prospects have staked out polarizing positions on abortion, most prominently Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who recently passed a controversial six-week abortion ban that has caused some top Republican donors to reevaluate or even pause their spending.

“Republicans won’t win the hearts and minds of Americans unless they’re able to address difficult and personal issues with compassion while sticking to our principles,” Nachama Soloveichik, Haley’s communications director, said in a statement. 

In an interview with JI on Tuesday, former Bush official Jay Lefkowitz, a Haley backer, said the former ambassador’s speech shows she is willing to openly engage with voters on what he described as “a third-rail issue” that is “top of mind for millions” of Americans. “She’s not shying away from it,” he added.

Leon Goldenberg, a prominent Orthodox Jewish businessman in Brooklyn who has donated to Haley’s campaign, said he is comfortable with her position on abortion, even as he believes “there are times when abortion is required” in order to protect the physical safety of the mother. “At the end of the day, we need to have abortion legal but rare,” he told JI. Haley, he said, “is trying to get to that middle ground without saying she’s in favor of abortion.”

“To be electable in America today, you cannot be completely anti-abortion,” Goldenberg concluded. “All you’re doing is putting yourself in a corner.”

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