Confederate Flag Flies in South Carolina Primary
The Civil War might have ended 143 years ago but the Confederate battle flag refuses to die as a political issue.
The Republican presidential candidates on Thursday moved to appeal to different types of conservative voters before the South Carolina primary, with Mike Huckabee using colorful language to declare the Confederate flag a states’ rights issue and Senator John McCain embracing a supply-side tax cut proposal.
“You don’t like people from outside the state coming in and telling you what to do with your flag,” Mr. Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, told supporters in Myrtle Beach, according to The Associated Press. “In fact,” he said, “if somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we’d tell them what to do with the pole; that’s what we’d do.”
At a news conference on Thursday night, he said, “It is not an issue the president of the United States needs to weigh in on.” Mr. Huckabee, who did not say whether he considered it offensive to fly the Confederate battle flag, made his remarks as he toured the state with David Beasley, a former South Carolina governor, who had angered some conservatives by removing the flag from the Capitol dome in Columbia and displaying it elsewhere on the Capitol grounds.
And a radio advertisement paid for by an independent group used the flag issue to attack Mr. McCain, of Arizona, and praise Mr. Huckabee. “John McCain assaults our values,” it said. “Mike Huckabee understands the value of heritage.”
The Confederate flag issue — while not as prominent as it was in 2000 — has continued to surface. Fred D. Thompson, the former Tennessee senator who is staking his campaign on a strong showing here, said at a debate in November that “for a great many Americans, it’s a symbol of racism” and added that he was “glad that people have made a decision not to display it as a prominent flag symbolic of something in a state capitol.”
Mr. McCain, who has cited his own equivocations on the issue in 2000 as one of his failures of political courage, was met at several stops by flag-waving protesters. Asked about the flag at an event on Wednesday in Spartanburg, Mr. McCain said, “My answer, sir, is that I could not be more proud that the overwhelming majority of the people of this state joined together taking that flag off the top of the….” And his answer was drowned out by the cheers of supporters.
Fox has videos of Huckabee’s statements here.
Here’s the anti-McCain ad:
Huckabee and the commercial are right on three points:
- The average guy with a Confederate battle flag on his pickup truck in indeed saying nothing more sinister than “I’m proud to be a Southerner.”
- For most of these guys, it’s about respect for heritage and values rather than race.
- This issue is none of the federal government’s business.
McCain’s right, though, that South Carolina did the right thing in deciding to stop flying the flag over the state capitol. The state has a large black population which, for good reason, sees it as a symbol of slavery, Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, and other ugly parts of our past.
Not all that long ago, I agreed with Huckabee on the issue, finding the “heritage” argument dispositive. Hardy Jackson, my Southern History professor — and a proud Southerner — convinced me to change my mind with an elementary point: A core element of Southern culture (or, at least, its ideal) is civility. If flying the flag is deeply hurtful to a third of your population, it’s just downright rude to keep doing it. Let alone over your state capital.
So, Huckabee’s right that it’s not within the president’s power to tell South Carolina what to put on its flag. But McCain’s right that it’s a would-be president’s duty to speak out on issues that divide the country. There are all manner of things that are outside the scope of the president’s job where he can nonetheless lead by use of the bully pulpit.