When anyone asks Nikki Haley whether she might run for president one day, she acts as though someone has just asked her if she can fly.
“Everyone thinks that I’m ambitious and everybody thinks I’m trying to run for something and everybody thinks I want more,” the US Ambassador to the United Nations told CNN’s Jamie Gangel in the spring. “I can’t imagine running for the White House.”
That is not, strictly speaking, true.
Haley has spent much of her adult life in elected office. She served in the South Carolina state House from 2004 through 2010. That year she was elected governor. She served in that job until she was nominated by Trump to her current position late last year.
Politicians think about politics. And ambitious ones — as Haley is — think about making it to the top of their profession. And the top of their profession is the presidency.
For whatever reason, politicians — or most of them, at least — think that acknowledging that one day they would like to be president is somehow the height of irresponsibility. How could I possibly keep a corner of my mind on that long-held future goal and do my current job?! How can one brain possibly think of two things at the same time?!
(For the record: I always have my mind on my ultimate goal: Hosting a political game show. Or being a professional break dancer. Or both.)
What I’ve learned in politics — especially when it comes to politicians’ future plans — is that it’s often better to look what they do rather than what they say.
Which brings me to this paragraph in Elise Labott’s terrific Haley profile in CNN’s STATE magazine:
“While she praises the career staff at the UN mission, she keeps close counsel with a small group of trusted aides who worked with her in South Carolina, including Jon Lerner, a former pollster who now runs her Washington office.”
Lerner is one of the lowest profile — and best — Republican political consultants in the country. He handled polling and media in both of Haley’s gubernatorial runs and has also overseen Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Pat Toomey’s campaign as well as doing loads of work for the Club for Growth. In 2016, he helped run the super PAC supporting Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. (Lerner was also the chief political strategist for then South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford — before he hiked the Appalachian Trail.)
But, to be clear, Lerner is a political creature. He is someone who had made his name — although he likes to stay behind the scenes — via political campaigns. He is not someone who has spent a lifetime working on foreign policy. He is someone who gets people elected to office.
None of that makes the fact that Lerner is in Haley’s ambassadorial orbit all that unusual. Hillary Clinton, for example, had several political aides by her side at the State Department from 2009 onward.
But, Hillary was eying a presidential bid! And that’s why she — rightly — put political people around her to keep an eye on her future presidential prospects!
That, of course, is one of the things Lerner is doing for Haley. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)
What Lerner’s presence proves is that Haley’s I-have-never-thought-of-running-and-I-don’t-even-know-what-it-is approach on questions about her political future comes well short of total frankness.