The GOP Presidential Candidates’ Confederate Flag Problem

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A man holds a sign up during a protest rally against the Confederate flag in Columbia, South Carolina.Photo: MLADEN ANTONOV

Following a gunman’s horrifying murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston last week, national attention is once again being focused on the meaning and appropriateness of the Confederate flag, a symbol the white-supremacist shooter clearly identified himself with. Since both the murderer and his victims were from South Carolina, and the state flies the flag on its Capitol grounds, calls to remove that flag have now grown to their highest pitch in years. As a result, Republican presidential candidates — most of whom are finally characterizing the attack as racist — have now been forced to weigh in on the flag controversy, and thus risk alienating either voters who want the flag gone or those key white conservatives who celebrate the flag as an important part of their heritage. Then again, with South Carolina being an early primary state, GOP presidential hopefuls have had to have a position on this topic since at least 2000, though this debate may end up with significantly higher stakes.

While many commentators and liberal politicians have been debating the Confederate flag since Wednesday’s attack, the issue quickly veered into the current GOP primary race when, in a tweet published Saturday, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney revisited his long-held opinion that South Carolina should not fly the flag, calling it a “symbol of racial hatred” that should be removed to honor the victims of last week’s shooting. Later, Jeb Bush issued a statement indicating he was confident that South Carolina would “do the right thing” and take down the flag, something the former governor had himself ordered done in Florida, “moving the flag from the state grounds to a museum where it belonged.” However, Bush also indicated it was still up to South Carolina lawmakers to make that decision, a stance echoed by virtually every other Republican candidate that’s spoken on the issue.

Former Texas governor Rick Perry was one of them on Saturday, laying the responsibility at South Carolina’s feet, though he also highlighted how, in his state, “we dealt with those issues.” This was a reference to Texas’s decision — which Perry supported — to prevent the Confederate flag from appearing on state-issued license plates. Carly Fiorina took a similar tack, saying on Saturday that, while she personally agrees with Mitt Romney’s stance, “My personal opinion is not what’s relevant here.” Ohio governor John Kasich concurred, though he offered his opinion anyway: “If I were a citizen of South Carolina I’d be for taking it down.” Former New York governor George Pataki called the flag a “symbol of hatred” in 1997, though now he also wants South Carolina to make the call. Bobby Jindal and Ted Cruz are in the opinion-lite state’s choice camp as well.

As reported by the Miami Herald, Florida senator Marco Rubio declined to share his personal feelings on the flag when talking to reporters on Saturday, but also noted how South Carolina lawmakers have moved the flag before (from the Capitol building to the Capitol grounds):

The people of South Carolina will make the right decision for South Carolina and I believe in their capacity to make that decision. The next president of the United States will not make that decision. That’s up for the people of South Carolina to make, and I think they’ll make the right one like they’ve made them in the past.

Governor Mike Huckabee, appearing on Meet the Press Sunday morning, remarked, “I don’t personally display [the Confederate flag] anywhere so it is not an issue for me. That is an issue for the people of South Carolina.” He also complained that the debate was media-generated and had nothing to do with being president, saying that “if you want to point to me an article and section in the Constitution where it says the U.S. president ought to weigh in on what states use as symbols, then please refresh my memory of that.”

South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, speaking with CNN, said that what makes the debate so difficult is that the flag is “part of who we are”:

The [Confederate] flag represents to some people, a Civil War, and that was the symbol of one side. To others it is a racist symbol, and it has been used in a racist way. But the problems we have today in South Carolina and across the world are not because of a movie or because of symbols, it is because of what is in peoples’ hearts.

Graham also deflected attention to the shooter, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, arguing that “we’re not going to give this a guy an excuse about a book he might have read or a movie he watched or a song he listened to or a symbol out anywhere. It’s him … not the flag.” Graham also suggested the issue was not independent to South Carolina, remarking how “you could probably visit some other parts of the country and there is some symbol that doesn’t strike you as quite right.”

Rick Santorum, who attended today’s service at the Charleston church where the attack occurred, insisted he had an opinion about the flag this morning on ABC’s This Week, but declined to give it, instead leaving the controversy to South Carolina lawmakers. Scott Walker avoided the issue in a different way, refusing to address the topic on Saturday night, citing the need to let the shooting victims and community grieve before weighing in on such political discussions. Rand Paul has so far declined to comment on the subject at all. Donald Trump, surprisingly, has not offered an opinion yet either.

While states being left to their own devices is hardly a new theme in conservative thinking, Republicans may also be hoping they can just run out the clock, as South Carolina lawmakers are already indicating they will soon take up the issue. State representative Norman D. Brannon, a Republican, has announced he will introduce a bill in the state legislature to remove the flag from the Capitol grounds, and the New York Times reports that the lawmaker believes the bill will get wide support. Brannon was friends with state senator Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the church shooting. He told the Times:

What lit the fire under this was the tragic death of my friend and his eight parishioners. It took my buddy’s death to get me to do this. I should feel ashamed of myself.

Brannon added that presidential candidates should definitely “take a position on the flag.”