Scott, Haley, and the Radicalization of the ‘Moderate’ Republican

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

Tim Scott and Nikki Haley don’t seem like they’re one electoral defeat from hawking snake-oil supplements on a podcast monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Both would have been at home in the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, or Mitt Romney. Neither harbors any obvious affection for Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin. They are both stalwart supporters of Ukraine’s defense and the Republican foreign policy establishment’s ambitions more broadly.

For these reasons, both have been coded as relative “moderates” in GOP’s 2024 presidential primary.

The tendency to ideologically categorize Republicans on the basis of their affinity for Trumpism — such that those most aligned with the former president and his heterodoxies are far right while those more aligned with the GOP old guard are moderate — has always been misguided. Trump and his acolytes are, of course, uniquely radical in some important respects; anyone who does apologetics for an insurrection can be fairly described as a reactionary. Yet in some policy areas, Trump’s ostensible positions (if not his actual ones) are less extreme than Mitch McConnell’s. For example, the ex-president’s avowed opposition to entitlement cuts and a federal abortion ban puts him to the left of the median GOP officeholder on those issues.

Meanwhile, Haley and Scott’s fiscal priorities put them at the far-right fringe of American public opinion. Haley has called for raising the age of eligibility for Medicare and Social Security, a proposition supported by just 15 percent and 10 percent of the U.S. electorate respectively, according to a recent AP-NORC poll. Scott has endorsed similar changes to entitlement benefits.

As governor of South Carolina, Haley also held the line against expanding Medicaid coverage to households just above the poverty line, effectively choosing to pass up free federal funds and impair the finances of rural hospitals for the sake of denying healthcare to low-income people. Scott, for his part, attempted to throw millions off the Medicaid rolls by voting to repeal the expansion and gut the Affordable Care Act.

This is not a popular cause. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll taken earlier this year found that in the ten states that have yet to expand Medicaid — which is to say, some of the most conservative states in the country — voters support expanding Medicaid by a 65 to 34 percent margin.

Scott and Haley’s fanatical commitment to maintaining historically low tax rates for the wealthy and corporations also puts them outside the American mainstream. When asked to cite their top frustration with the existing tax system earlier this year, the most common complaints — cited by upwards of 60 percent of Americans — were that corporations and the wealthy weren’t paying their fair share.

Finally, Scott’s utter contempt for striking UAW workers — the South Carolina senator recently expressed the wish that they could somehow be fired en masse — places him in opposition to 75 percent of voters, who say they side with the union over management in the dispute, according to a Morning Consult poll.

All this said, even if we discount the radicalism of “normal” Republican economic views, Scott and Haley scarcely qualify as center-right. Both made that quite clear at Wednesday night’s debate at the Reagan Library. While the pair of South Carolina pols have stood firm against Trump’s heterodoxy on entitlements and NATO, they have nevertheless embraced some of the MAGA right’s most radical causes.

On Wednesday night, Haley promised to send U.S. special forces into Mexico to wage war on that nation’s drug cartels in defiance of its government’s wishes. In plain language, this would mean launching an illegal invasion of one of America’s top trade partners and geopolitical allies. The ostensible justification for this extraordinary measure is the fentanyl crisis, which is killing tens of thousands of Americans every year.

The impulse that something drastic must be done to arrest the harms of the fentanyl trade is understandable. But launching an illegal war would not only entail enormous geopolitical and moral costs but would also have zero chance of solving the problem. Republican proponents of a military intervention have cited America’s support for the Colombian government’s war against the FARC as a precedent. Putting aside the many disanalogies between aiding a government in its conflict with a drug cartel and invading a country against its will, the reality is that America’s partnership with Colombia against the FARC failed to impair the cocaine trade that it targeted. As Justin Logan and Daniel Raisbeck note, coca cultivation in Columbia nearly doubled between 2000 and 2020. This is despite the fact that cocaine production is easy to disrupt relative to fentanyl manufacturing. The former substance requires the cultivation of large areas of land that must be located in specific agricultural regions and are readily identifiable from overhead. This enabled U.S. and Colombian pilots to spray glyphosate over coca fields in an attempt to eradicate the crop.

Fentanyl by contrast can be produced virtually anywhere from miniscule quantities of easily obtainable chemicals. And since the drug is so extraordinarily potent, it is also mind-bendingly profitable. A recent indictment of the Sinaloa Cartel indicated that $800 worth of fentanyl precursors can yield $640,000 worth of doses. This is not the sort of problem that you can solve with a missile strike or special-operations raid. The costs for entering the fentanyl market are so low and the profit incentives so vast that disrupting production in one location will only shift it to another. The idea that an invasion of Mexico would save so many Americans from overdoses as to justify its exorbitant geopolitical costs is insane. This is crackpot stuff. Yet it is now the sort of the thing that putatively reasonable Republicans can endorse.

Scott, meanwhile, suggested that he does not believe that the U.S. Constitution guarantees birthright citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants. This is a position that, just a few short years ago, was the exclusive property of the right’s white nationalist fringe.

To no small extent, Haley and Scott’s brand of mainstream Republicanism represents a worst of both worlds, combining the plutocratic priorities of Paul Ryan with the fanatical jingoism and xenophobia of Donald Trump. With moderates like these, who needs reactionaries?

Scott, Haley, and the Extremism of the ‘Moderate’ Republican