Opinion | Donald Trump should debate Nikki Haley before Republicans nominate him

The Republican National Committee will not anoint former president Donald Trump as the GOP’s “presumptive nominee” this week in Las Vegas after all. The Trump campaign wanted that formal designation bestowed but reversed course after several members of the party’s governing body called it undemocratic, given that 48 states have yet to cast primary or caucus ballots. “I should do it the ‘Old Fashioned’ way,” the former president posted on social media, “and finish the process off AT THE BALLOT BOX.”

That’s progress: Mr. Trump wants voters, not an angry mob of his supporters, to decide an election. Apparently, he saw that it would have been politically unwise, even within the party he dominates, to so blatantly short-circuit the nominating process, in which he has thus far received 232,652 votes from Iowa and New Hampshire, earning 32 of the 1,215 delegates needed to clinch the nod.

Still, the machinations inside the RNC reflect the degree to which Mr. Trump has emerged as the boss of a new party establishment, having vanquished the old guard against which he waged political war for the past eight years. The last opponent standing in his way is former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who is determined to contest the primary on Feb. 24 in her home state. Mr. Trump, brushing aside her accusations that he is “totally unhinged,” refuses, insultingly, to debate the woman he calls “Birdbrain.”

To be sure, debate avoidance is standard operating procedure for front-runners. If he were really so confident of his intellectual superiority to a rival whom he once admired enough to appoint as his ambassador to the United Nations, however, Mr. Trump would relish the chance to debate. Such a clash would certainly serve the Republican Party, and the country as a whole, by focusing attention on the degree to which Ms. Haley’s accusations about his fitness for office have merit — as well as on the significant policy differences between the two.

A debate with Ms. Haley would force Mr. Trump to explain his proposal for a 10 percent tax on all imports, essentially a $300 billion annual tax increase, and why he allowed the national debt to grow $7.8 trillion during his term. Mr. Trump has demagogued Ms. Haley for acknowledging that the retirement age needs to be raised for younger people to save Social Security from insolvency.

Abortion is a vexing issue for both candidates. Ms. Haley said she’d sign a six-week ban if still governor but calls for “consensus” at the federal level because Republicans won’t have 60 senators to overcome a filibuster. Mr. Trump takes credit for appointing justices to overturn Roe v. Wade but won’t commit to supporting a federal abortion ban. Ms. Haley opposed Democratic efforts to eliminate the filibuster, but Mr. Trump pushed Republicans to do so during his presidency. Arguing over the filibuster might sound esoteric, but it’s hugely consequential if Republicans win the White House and both chambers in November.

Mr. Trump recently mocked Ms. Haley for her botched answer to a question about the cause of the Civil War. “I’d say slavery is sort of the obvious answer, as opposed to about three paragraphs of bulls—,” Mr. Trump said this month. The next day, talking out of the other side of his mouth, he bizarrely insisted that he, unlike Abraham Lincoln, could have averted the conflict through negotiations. As governor, Ms. Haley took down the Confederate flag flying on State House grounds after a 2015 white-supremacist massacre of Black churchgoers in Charleston. Two years later, amid violence in Charlottesville, Mr. Trump opposed removing Confederate monuments. We’d like to hear the two of them explain themselves regarding all of the above.

Ms. Haley says she believes climate change is caused by human activity. As governor, she helped coastal communities adapt to more frequent flooding caused by more intense storms. But Mr. Trump has called global warming a “hoax.”

Republicans rallied behind Mr. Trump last year as he was indicted on 91 counts in four cases, widely perceiving these prosecutions as politically motivated. But a jury awarding $83.3 million in damages on Friday to E. Jean Carroll for defamation pointed to risks the GOP assumes by coronating Mr. Trump and offers a rationale for Ms. Haley to keep running. Mr. Trump has been willing to face his accusers in court, even when he’s not required to show up. Why won’t he face Ms. Haley on a debate stage?


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