Republican Candidates Are Dodging The Issue On The Confederate Flag
With notable exceptions, most of the Republican candidates for President are refusing to take a stand on the propriety of South Carolina flying the Confederate Flag. That's called cowardice.
On Saturday, Mitt Romney sent out a message on Twitter calling for the Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol to be removed, a message which President Obama himself endorsed later in the day, and in doing so Romney has put many of the Republicans running for President on the spot:
[Romney’s] comments Saturday came amid the struggle by several candidates to articulate whether or not the flag should remain in place — and whether the motives of the church shooter were racist.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is expected to launch a presidential campaign soon, said in a statement Saturday that the flag issue “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.”
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush said in a statement that “My position on how to address the Confederate flag is clear. In Florida we acted, moving the flag from the state grounds to a museum where it belonged.”
In 2001, Bush ordered the removal of the Confederate flag from the Florida State Capitol, where it had flown since 1978.
But Bush’s statement didn’t explicitly call on South Carolina to do the same: “This is obviously a very sensitive time in South Carolina and our prayers are with the families, the AME church community and the entire state. 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.”
Late Friday, Bush told a Tampa Republican fundraiser that “It breaks my heart that somebody, a racist, would do the things he did” in Charleston.
In Miami, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Saturday that it is up to the people of South Carolina, not “outsiders,” to decide whether to remove the Confederate flag.
“This is an issue that they should debate and work through and not have a bunch of outsiders going in and telling them what to do,” he told reporters.
In his most expansive remarks on the deadly mass shooting, Rubio said the white man charged with the killings “carried out an act motivated by racial hatred.”
“It’s an atrocity. It’s a horrifying instance,” he added.
Rubio said he now supports Bush’s decision to remove the Confederate flag from the Florida capitol and place it in a museum. But as a state legislator,Rubio co-sponsored a war monuments preservation bill that would have preserved the Confederate flag’s placement on Capitol grounds.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), in an interview with The Washington Post,said Saturday that decisions about the flag are for South Carolina to decide, but that he understands “both sides” of the debate.
“Both those who see a history of racial oppression and a history of slavery, which is the original sin of our nation, and we fought a bloody civil war to expunge that sin,” he said while campaigning in Iowa.
But, he added: “I also understand those who want to remember the sacrifices of their ancestors and the traditions of their states, not the racial oppression, but the historical traditions and I think often this issue is used as a wedge to try to divide people.”
In Philadelphia, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is poised to launch a GOP presidential campaign, began a speech on Saturday by asking for a moment of silence in memory “of those nine lives” killed in Charleston. As he watched media coverage from South Carolina, he said he was struck by how many “family and friends were already talking about forgiveness.”
Later in a statement, Walker said that “The horrific crime committed on Wednesday in Charleston was done by a racist and evil man. I condemn both his acts and his beliefs.”
He added later that “The placement of a Confederate flag on the Capitol grounds is a state issue and I fully expect the leaders of South Carolina to debate this but the conversation should wait until after the families have had a chance to bury and mourn their loved ones.”
Other candidates have been similarly opaque in their response to questions about the Confederate flag. Carly Fiorina acknowledged that the flag is “offensive to many,” but said that its presence on the Capitol grounds in Columbia was an issue for the people of South Carolina. Rick Santorum similarly refused to weigh in on the issue, Mike Huckabee said that it is not an issue that someone running for President should be concerned about, and Rand Paul’s campaign simply said that the Senator had no comment. Finally, the one South Carolinian in the Presidential race, Senator Lindsey Graham, said on Friday that the flag was part of who South Carolinians are, and seemed to dismiss the idea that it should be removed from its present location in Columbia.
This isn’t the first time that issue of the Confederate flag has become an issue in Republican Presidential politics. In 2000, after other Southern states had removed Confederate symbols from state buildings and offices in response to public pressure, activists turned their attention to Columbia, where the Confederate Battle Flag still flew over the Capitol Building itself along with the American flag and the South Carolina state flag. As a compromise, the flag was removed from that location and moved to the memorial area where it flies now, but a law passed at the time provided that it could not be removed from there without approval of a super-majority of the state legislature. The flag at its new location became an issue during the 2008 Presidential campaign, and saw Romney first take the stand that the flag should be removed entirely, as did former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, and faced push back from South Carolinians over his stance. In 2000, John McCain had supported removing the flag from the Capitol building and faced similar push back during the primary in 2008. To the extent to which the flag was an issue in 2012, the only candidate who seems to have spoken publicly about it was Newt Gingrich, who said that only the people of South Carolina should decide the issue. In this respect then, the response that we’re hearing from Republican candidates today is par for the course.
In the grand scheme of things, of course, the location of the Confederate Flag on the ground of the South Carolina State Capitol is not the most important issue on the planet, and it certainly isn’t the key to resolving America’s remaining racial issues. In this respect, then, the criticism that one blogger has raised that removing the symbol of the Confederate flag will not lead to a healing of racial wounds is correct, but it also completely misses the point.
Flags are symbols, and symbols are meant to send a message. In this case, the message that the Confederate Battle Flag sends seems to me to be very clear. To a significant extent, that flag only became a prominent symbol in the South after the Civil War when it was adopted by those resisting efforts to enforce the equal rights that African-Americans are entitled to and, later, as a response to the Civil Rights Movement and the efforts to end segregation. As part of what came to be called “Massive Resistance,” South Carolina and many other states of the former Confederacy put the flag in prominent public places, incorporated into the state flags, and otherwise adopted it as a banner. It was also a frequent sight at Ku Klux Klan rallies. This was, obviously, done to send a message, both to African-Americans and to the Federal Government that was seeking to protect their rights. It was a message of prejudice and intimidation that no sane, rational person living in the 21st Century should endorse. And yet most of the Republican field doesn’t seem to realize that.
Another argument often made about the flag is that it is part of the “heritage” of the South. David French makes the argument in a piece at National Review that was posted late last week, and that argument also misses the point. Heritage belongs in a museum not on public grounds and state flags. Moreover, the heritage argument ignores the actual history of that flag and how it ended up becoming such a prominent symbol on official buildings in the south. Ilya Somin addresses this “heritage” argument quite well at The Volokh Conspiracy:
One can try to defend the Confederates by invoking a kind of historical moral relativism: their support for slavery should be excused because it merely reflected the values of their time. But that actually lets them off the hook too easily. By 1861, many Americans – including some white southerners – recognized that slavery was wrong, and at odds with the Enlightenment ideals underlying the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. A few southern whites were active opponents of slavery. Many more at least recognized that it wasn’t worth fighting a war to defend.
ot all who wave the Confederate flag today do so because they approve of slavery and racism. Many, perhaps most, are simply trying to express regional pride, without carefully considering the flag’s history. Others have bought into the myth that Confederate secession had no real connection to slavery. But the flag’s historical association with slavery and racism cannot simply be ignored. Both during the Civil War era, and during other periods such as the Civil Rights Movement, its major function was as a symbol for political movements seeking to oppress blacks.
Taking down the Confederate flag and otherwise curbing official veneration of the Confederacy may not prevent racist violence of the kind we saw last week. Unlike participants in racist lynchings and mob violence a century ago, people like the perpetrator of the Charleston attack do not represent the mainstream values of their society. They are relatively marginal extremists who are unlikely to stop because most of society condemns them and their values. Nonetheless, ending state-sponsored honoring of Confederate leaders and symbols would be a valuable symbolic step.
To be completely blunt about it, if the heritage your are celebrating includes glorifying a failed, defeated nation that was established for the purpose of enforcing racial inequality and protecting slavery and spreading to other territories, something made clear in speeches by the Confederacy’s founders and the Secession Declarations of the individual states, then it isn’t much of a heritage at all.
One would think that candidates for office in the 21st Century would recognize this, but it’s unlikely that the Republicans prevaricating on this issue will suffer for it at the ballot box. Indeed, if past primaries are any indication it is the candidate who takes a stand against the flag that is more likely to suffer in a Republican Primary. At the same time, this is the kind of issue that gives one an indication of the moral fiber of a politician, and most of these candidates are coming up wanting. In that respect, it’s somewhat ironic that it’s Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, who conservatives have often criticized for being without principles, who have actually displayed principle on this issue. Perhaps the other candidates could learn something from them.