Many Republicans were slow to describe last week’s shooting in Charleston as racially motivated, and as the Confederate flag that flies on the grounds of South Carolina’s capitol became a subject of national debate once again, the current crop of GOP presidential candidates gave murky answers on how the state should proceed. While former governors Jeb Bush and Rick Perry proudly noted that they took a stand against the flag when the issue arose in their own states, they said it was ultimately a matter for South Carolinians to decide. Many candidates took the same noncommittal stance or refused to comment on the matter.
But after South Carolina governor Nikki Haley and several other state lawmakers called for the flag’s removal on Monday afternoon, the presidential candidates were finally able to share their opinions on the issue — and as it turns out, they’re mostly against states displaying symbols that are widely considered racist.
Politico reports that South Carolina lawmakers, including Senator Lindsey Graham, had been planning the move for days. While Graham took flak over the weekend for attempting to explain that the Confederate flag is “part of who we are,” on Monday he was by Governor Haley’s side.
A source “familiar with Graham’s thinking” claimed it could have hurt South Carolina if the candidate’s stand against racist iconography wasn’t carefully timed. “If the senior senator rushed out right in front of the cameras, and the flag had not come down, you just handed the competing states a huge weapon to use against you,” said the source, who argued that the state might lose business opportunities if it opposed a moral call from Graham.
Jeb Bush’s initial statement was clearer than that of his fellow candidates, but he carefully avoided explicitly telling South Carolinians what they should do. “My position on how to address the Confederate flag is clear,” he said. “In Florida we acted, moving the flag from the state grounds to a museum where it belonged … Following a period of mourning there will rightly be a discussion among leaders in the state about how South Carolina should move forward, and I’m confident they will do the right thing.”
After Haley’s press conference, he was quick to confirm that he agrees the flag should come down:
Rick Perry, who said “it’s up to the people of South Carolina,” though he believes the flag “clearly … divides people,” applauded the push to take the flag down:
Ohio governor John Kasich, who said over the weekend, “This is up to the people of South Carolina to decide, but if I were a citizen of South Carolina, I’d be for taking it down,” responded:
Senator Marco Rubio had said he expected the state would “make the right choice for the people of South Carolina,” and in a rhetorical feat, he managed to weigh in on Monday without mentioning the word flag. “I applaud Governor Haley for her leadership at this difficult time,” Rubio said. “I appreciate and respect her statement that ‘This is South Carolina’s statehouse, it is South Carolina’s historic moment, and this will be South Carolina’s decision. I have no doubt that given how the people of South Carolina have dealt with this tragedy so far, they will continue to inspire the nation with their courage, compassion and unity.”
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who previously refused to weigh in one way or the other until after the funerals, had this to say:
Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Bobby Jindal, who all said the matter was a state issue, had nothing to add on Monday evening. Chris Christie and Rand Paul have not responded to multiple requests for comment on the issue.
As the Republicans equivocated over the past few days, the Democratic candidates took the opportunity to loudly condemn the flag and what it stands for. As both the Washington Post and the New York Times note, Hillary Clinton has been particularly strong on race issues, a topic she had trouble with during her 2008 campaign.
But the GOP candidates really had no way of knowing that they’d get into trouble for declaring South Carolina should display the Confederate flag if it wants to — aside from the fact that John McCain took the same position during his 2000 presidential campaign, then apologized for compromising his principles. Later he said failing to call for the flag’s removal is “one of my biggest regrets, frankly, of all of the campaigns I’ve been in.”