The Republican presidential candidates who refused to take a stand on the Confederate flag are off the hook.
Even as the website of accused murderer Dylann Roof, the white gunman charged with killing nine black churchgoers last week, showed him embracing the flag, several Republican candidates insisted over the weekend it was South Carolina’s decision whether to remove the controversial symbol from the State House grounds.
They talked about states’ rights – always a useful conservative battle cry to rally white conservatives – and they talked about how much they respected both sides of the debate.
But Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson and others would not weigh in on whether the flag, described Monday by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as “a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally offensive past” should continue flying on the capitol grounds.
Haley saved them, and for that matter, the Republican party, Monday. Flanked by politicians from both parties, she said the flag must come down. “The events of this past week call upon us to look at this in a different way ... 150 years after the end of the Civil War, the time has come.”
The sigh of relief was loud and clear all over the Republican landscape. “Now is the time to do what is right, and I support the call by Governor Haley and South Carolina leaders to remove the Confederate battle flag from state house grounds,” said party chairman Reince Priebus. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker tweeted “I support her decision,” and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. added “the time for a state to fly it has long since passed.”
But it took Haley and growing public pressure to bring many Republicans to that point.
The flag was first flown over the State Capitol in 1962 as a symbol of defiance during the civil rights movement. Last week, while state and U.S. flags were lowered to half-staff after nine people were murdered in a historic black church, the Confederate flag remained at full staff, thanks to a state law.
Many Republican presidential candidates insisted the issue was one of states’ rights.
“I don’t think the federal government or federal candidates should be making decisions on everything,” said Santorum, a former U.S. senator.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who as a legislator backed removing the flag from the Florida Capitol, told The Miami Herald the decision was up to the people of South Carolina. Retired neurosurgeon Carson acknowledged that while the flag “causes a lot of people angst,” state residents should “sit down and have an intelligent discussion.” Cruz, R-Texas, called it “a question for South Carolina.”
“For those of us running for president, everyone’s being baited with this question as if somehow that has anything to do whatsoever with running for president,” he said, “and my position is, it most certainly does not.”
But it does, and has for a long time. Southern presidential campaigns have been built for decades on wooing white conservative voters with pledges to keep Washington out of their lives.
“I think they just don’t want to be told what to do,” said David Woodard, a Clemson, South Carolina, Republican consultant.
Race is usually the fuel that keeps this bonfire going. In the early days of the modern civil rights struggle, dissident Southern Democrats split from the party in 1948, nominating South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond as their presidential candidate.
“We oppose the elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes, the control of private employment by Federal bureaucrats called for by the misnamed civil rights program,” the States Rights Democratic Party said in its platform.
And this: “We favor home-rule, local self-government and a minimum interference with individual rights.”
Twenty years later, the pitch had a different tone, but the undertone of race persisted. George Wallace, then a former Alabama governor, ran as a third party presidential candidate, vowing to keep Washington out of state affairs.
Whether children should be bused into different neighborhoods, in order to achieve racial balance in schools, was a huge issue.
“If I become president, not one dime of federal money is going to be used to make you bus your child anywhere,” Wallace said. “You bus them if you want to. I don’t care, but you are not going to have the federal government telling you how to do it and when to do it.”
Yet when it’s useful for Washington to get involved, states’ rights seem less important. The 2016 presidential campaign is certain to feature reminders the next president could name Supreme Court justices who could outlaw abortion or overturn the 2010 health care law.
So where do states rights fit? Where it’s convenient. When Muslims wanted to build a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City, conservatives howled. “Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand. Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in the interest of healing,” urged 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in a 2010 tweet.
Candidates are quick to distance themselves from blatant racist dogma. When news surfaced this weekend that alleged white supremacist Earl Holt’s writings may have motivated Roof, Republicans quickly either returned his donations or gave them to the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund to aid shooting victims.
Some Republicans were quick to express outrage over the flag before Haley’s announcement. Mitt Romney, who last week tweeted his opposition to flying the flag, expressed that view since he began running for president eight years ago. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and retired business executive Carly Fiorina have also been critical.
And while the flag issue is likely to fade, the notion that some candidates were champions of states’ rights is not, as they’re likely to remind South Carolina voters.
"The decision to remove the Confederate flag needs to be made by the people of South Carolina,” said former Texas Gov. Rick Perry after hearing Haley’s decision, repeating what he said earlier, “and Gov. Haley's leadership today honors the people of Charleston, and the families of the victims of last week's horrific hate crime.”