Maybe This Is Why Donald Trump Is Afraid to Debate Nikki Haley

If Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis have the best shot at taking on Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, there was an especially telling moment at Wednesday’s debate that shows why Ms. Haley might be better suited to endure and overcome Mr. Trump’s lines of attacks than Mr. DeSantis would be.

It was when their rival, the tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, used a question about Israel to jab at Ms. Haley and Mr. DeSantis for being foreign policy hawks and then try to belittle them for wearing heels — high heels in the case of Ms. Haley, and cowboy boots for Mr. DeSantis (there has been much speculation that he has lifts in those boots).

“Do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels?” Mr. Ramaswamy said, clearly pleased with his one-liner. “In which case we’ve got two of them onstage tonight.”

It was a classic Trump play by the Trump-toady Ramaswamy — the way the former president tries to reduce women to gender and make them seem weak (Hillary Clinton, Carly Fiorina, Megyn Kelly and more) or tries to de-man a male rival (the penis comparisons with Marco Rubio, the wimp attacks on Jeb Bush and more).

Mr. DeSantis said nothing. He was either trying to ignore it or rise above it (or perhaps forget it ever happened). If that’s the soft-shoe dance that Mr. DeSantis plans if and when Mr. Trump escalates attacks on him, history suggests that Mr. DeSantis will get stomped.

Ms. Haley, by contrast, seemed almost delighted that Mr. Ramaswamy raised her stilettos: It gave her an opportunity to emphasize this most feminine of objects, while also turning the moment around on her male rival.

“I’d first like to say, they’re five-inch heels,” she corrected. “And I don’t wear ‘em unless you can run in ‘em.”

“The second thing that I will say is, I wear heels. They’re not for a fashion statement. They’re for ammunition.”

It wasn’t the most artful line. (Who was she outrunning? How could heels be ammunition? Was she not worried she’d conjure a bad Single White Female comparison, which of course she did?) But what the exchange revealed was that, amid this sea of macho men and during this era of macho politics, there is a path for women that involves simultaneously rising above and leaning into a gendered insult; while the men, on the other hand, too often succumb to the temptation of going lower.

Ms. Haley seemed to know she’d gain more by shutting down a male jerk with humor than letting the moment go. A bit later, too, when Mr. Ramaswamy brought up Ms. Haley’s daughter’s use of TikTok, an unusually personal attack on a family member, Ms. Haley spoke for many when she said, “You’re just scum.”

Now imagine Ms. Haley on the debate stage with Mr. Trump. Maybe Mr. Trump has imagined it. Maybe that’s why he’s afraid to debate her.

Whether you love or hate these playground-style duels, these moments can be more consequential than many of us assume. Most Americans are not reading deeply into the platforms of each candidate; they get glimpses of them in public performances like this, and often form opinions around them. So when a moment like this goes viral, often it matters even more. “People get to see whether you could stand your ground or hold your own,” said Tristan Bridges, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies gender politics. “And they’re just intensely gendered, every time, no matter who’s running.”

Masculinity contests have long been a part of politics; for years, war heroes and combat veterans won office or their party’s presidential nominations, as other men sought to project traditionally masculine characteristics like toughness, resolve, seriousness, strength. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton ran for president staking out some hawkish positions on Iraq and foreign policy; her image of toughness helped her at first, given the ongoing threats from the war on terror. But she became caught up in questions about her likability, with none other than Barack Obama delivering if not a Ramaswamy comment, then still a pretty gendered one in a hushed aside at a critical debate: “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”

No woman runs for office these days without having some way of responding to such digs, and Ms. Haley has practiced. As far back as 2012, she’s been recycling a version of her heels-as-ammunition line. As governor of South Carolina: “I’ve got a completely male Senate. Do I want to use these for kicking? Sometimes, I do.” During an address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee: “If I see something wrong, we’re going to kick them every single time.” In her official campaign announcement: “You should know this about me: I don’t put up with bullies. And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels.”

The reason for this stiletto contortion is actually quite clever: Ms. Haley, like the women candidates before her, must balance the qualities we expect of women (warmth, femininity) with what we expect of leaders (authority, strength). By taking the most feminine of objects — a heel — and turning it into a weapon is essentially her way of saying “I wear heels, but I’m tough.” It’s not clear how effective this strategy will be with large numbers of voters, but at least it doesn’t contribute to making American politics a locker room.

Which is more than we can say for Mr. Trump, of course, who took masculinity chest-beating to new heights with his attacks on “Little Marco” and “Low Energy Jeb” in 2015 and 2016, and any number of sexist attacks on Mrs. Clinton as weak and tired. Or even on occasion Joe Biden, who once said he would have “beat the hell out of” Trump had the two been in high school together.

Mr. DeSantis, for his part, seems stuck — there’s no way to judo out of a subject that his critics seem to be dissecting with the fury of a coded Taylor Swift lyric. No, really: There are diagrams of how his boots bend; their arch; the shape they make inside his pants; how they affect his gait. Politico Magazine even interviewed shoemakers about the boots — including one who makes bespoke cowboy boots with heel lifts for Texas politicians, and who concluded there was “no doubt” Mr. DeSantis is wearing lifts. (The shoemaker said the effect of a heel lift is similar to “five-inch stilettos.” A DeSantis spokesperson replied that the governor does not pad his boots and called the magazine’s story a “hit piece.”)

It is certainly no surprise that Mr. Trump appears positively giddy over the whole boot matter, posting an image of Mr. DeSantis from a TV appearance on his Truth Social platform with the caption, “Tell me he’s not wearing hidden heels,” followed by a statement from a spokesman, Steven Cheung, suggesting Mr. DeSantis might consider something “sassier like platform shoes more appropriate for a contestant on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.’ ”

Mr. DeSantis, in response, did what any grown man running for president would apparently do — he went for Mr. Trump’s genitalia. “If Donald Trump can summon the balls to show up to the debate” (he didn’t) “I’ll wear a boot on my head,” Mr. DeSantis challenged. His campaign quickly began selling golf balls with the slogan: “Ron DeSantis Has a Pair. He Shows Up.”

If this all feels a little tired, as it may to at least a lot of women in this country, perhaps Ms. Haley offers Republicans another path.

I hope she sticks with the heels, to be honest. They are imbued with meaning: A way to remind voters that, like Ginger Rogers, she’s essentially had to dance backward in them — calling attention to the double standard for women — and to give her a comeback against a gendered attack.

A final observation. I spent some time examining Ms. Haley’s debate stilettos last week, and by my feminine assessment they look more like four inches than five. Which is utterly inconsequential, except that it tells us something about Ms. Haley: She’s willing to play the size game, too.

Jessica Bennett is a contributing editor in Opinion who writes on gender, politics and culture. She teaches journalism at New York University and is co-host of the podcast, In Retrospect.

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