WAVERING voters in competitive congressional districts are not going to cast their ballots based on when America’s ambassador to the UN resigned. That Nikki Haley chose to do so on October 9th is nonetheless odd. Just a few weeks before the mid-terms, when Republicans are still crowing about having installed Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, her resignation reinforces the impression that the Trump administration cannot hire and keep “the best people”. Still, anyone to whom that matters is probably voting for a Democrat anyway. President Donald Trump’s most dedicated supporters have little use for the UN and would be happy to see Ms Haley’s position unfilled. Her departure will not move the needle now. It nevertheless set off a lot of speculation about what she is up to.
Ms Haley’s resignation seems to have caught White House staff by surprise. Despite a recent report raising questions about her use of private jets, Ms Haley faced no pressure to resign. Unlike many of the president’s initial cabinet appointees, she began as a critic rather than a supporter of Mr Trump. But, like so many other Republicans, she turned from critic to good soldier, promoting Mr Trump’s policies and adopting his combative style—warning before member states voted on a resolution condemning Mr Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem that “the US would be taking names”.
Ms Haley was never a wholehearted Trumpist. She said that the women who accused her boss of sexual misconduct “should be heard.” She tangled with other members of his cabinet, and did not get along with Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s first secretary of state. Like Bobby Jindal, another child of Indian immigrants who became the Republican governor of a southern state, Ms Haley once seemed to offer a more cosmopolitan, inclusive and open future for the Republican Party, a prospect that faded when Mr Trump reoriented it around nativist grievances.
She has managed an unusual balancing act during nearly two years in the job, remaining in the good graces of both Mr Trump and his Republican-establishment antagonists. Part of that was owing to her portfolio. Neither Mr Trump nor his supporters have ever seemed terribly interested in the details of foreign policy, expressing only a desire for respect. The positions Ms Haley advocated at the UN—tough on Iran, defensive of Israel, pragmatically nurturing alliances—were mainstream Republican ones before Mr Trump came along.
There has been speculation that Ms Haley resigned to preserve her future political prospects. Things could get rockier for the Trump administration should the Democrats win the House in November. Getting out now lets her claim good service in the Trump administration, which should count for something in the future with his supporters, while also keeping herself unsullied by whatever Democrats may use their subpoena power to unearth.
Bill Kristol, a prominent Republican Never Trumper, has floated Ms Haley as a possible primary challenger to the president in 2020. During the Oval Office appearance with Mr Trump at which she announced her resignation, Ms Haley told reporters that she would campaign for the president in his next race. Should he run for re-election in 2020, it would be classically Trumpian to dump Mike Pence from the ticket after four years of devoted service and pick someone else. Ms Haley could help Republicans rebuild her party’s brand with educated women.
Or, if Lindsey Graham, the senior senator from her home state of South Carolina, were to enter Mr Trump’s administration after the mid-terms, his seat, which is up in 2020, would be hers for the taking. Ms Haley would face a challenge from the right, but she was elected governor there twice and remains popular. That would leave her well placed to run for president in 2024, when she would be just 52 years old.