Charleston Shooting Makes Confederate Flag a GOP Issue
Policy + Politics

Charleston Shooting Makes Confederate Flag a GOP Issue

Former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said over the weekend that it was time for South Carolina to finally remove a Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state capital in the wake of the tragic killings of nine members of an historic black church in Charleston by a deranged 21-year-old white supremacist.

“Take down the #Confederate Flag at the SC Capitol,” Romney tweeted on Saturday. “To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims.”

Related: Republicans Avoid Talk of Race, Guns After Charleston Shooting

That was easier said by the failed 2012 candidate for the White House who has hung up his political spurs than the horde of Republicans jockeying for position to garner the 2016 presidential nomination.

Despite a renewed call by President Obama, civil rights and religious leaders and scores of Democrats to remove the flag in the wake of the mass killings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, some Republican presidential candidates are reluctant to ruffle conservative voters’ feathers before the South Carolina GOP primary next February.

They may be dodging a non-existent bullet, since no appeal from any corner of the GOP, the White House or anywhere else has any sway with whether that flag flies or not. The Washington Post explained the dilemma this way: “It seemed, no one — particularly not South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) — could do anything about it. This was a matter of law. “In South Carolina, the governor does not have legal authority to alter the flag,” a Haley spokesman told ABC on Thursday. “Only the General Assembly can do that.”

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was the latest Republican candidate to make the case that it really wasn’t his business to say whether South Carolina officials should keep the odious battle flag waving in front of the state capital in Columbia. During his first bid for the White House back in 2008, Huckabee publicly advised South Carolinians -- in similar language -- to tell outsiders who opposed the flag to go stick it.

Related: Mike Huckabee: 13 Things You Didn’t Know About Him

“I still feel like it’s not an issue for a person running for president,” Huckabee told Chuck Todd, moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, on Sunday. “If the state government of South Carolina wishes to address an issue in their state, that’s fine. But, Chuck, if you can point me to an article of the Constitution in which a United States president on the way in [comments on] what states use as symbols, then please refresh my memory on that.”

When Todd pressed him a little more on the flag issue, the one-time Fox News commentator and author snapped, “For those of us running for president, everyone is being baited with this question, as if somehow that has anything to do with running for president. And my position is it most certainly does not.”

Huckabee added that with so many other pressing economic and national defense issues, he doubted that the public wants presidential candidates “to weigh in on every little issue in all 50 states.”

With every major TV network and news organization transfixed on the aftermath of  Dylann Roof’s cold-blooded murder Wednesday night of the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, a highly regarded state senator, and eight of his parishioners at a bible study session, it might be hard to argue that the flag controversy was a “little issue.”

Related: Disbelief, defiance in South Carolina town once home to shooting suspect

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP said, “There is no stronger symbol” of racial intolerance and divisiveness “than the flag flying,” according to The Post.  U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), a member of the House Democratic leadership, said on Meet the Press that his state continues to flaunt a “flag of rebellion” that fosters a “climate that allows this kind of thing to happen.”

Roof opened fire with a semi-automatic .45-caliber Glock-model gun and killed the nine victims Wednesday night after showing up at the church unexpectedly and sitting through a bible study class.  

Before the killings, Roof had posted a racist manifesto targeting blacks, Jews and Hispanics on his white-supremacist Website. Among 60 photos that Roof had posted on the site was one showing him holding a Confederate flag and a gun.

By showing solidarity with Obama and civil rights leaders in calling for the flag to be removed from near the entrance to South Carolina state capital, Romney forced many of the leading Republican presidential candidates to respond as well to the flag issue.

Related: Can Jeb Bush Unite the GOP’s Establishment and Religious Wings?

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who formally announced his candidacy last week, commented, “In Florida we acted, moving the flag from the state grounds to a museum where it belonged.”

He said in a statement to the Associated Press that following a period of mourning in South Carolina, “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.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker declined to offer a position, other than to say there would be the need for a “good healthy debate.”  South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham – one of four GOP senators seeking their party’s nomination, told CNN that he was open to reconsidering the decision to keep the flag in front of the state capital, but added, “It is part of who we are.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, another GOP presidential candidate, said the last thing the people of South Carolina needed was outsiders telling them what to do.

South Carolina was the last state to fly the Confederate battle flag from its Capitol dome.  Under a compromise struck in 2000, legislators agreed to move the flag to a 30-foot flagpole elsewhere on the state capitol grounds. Clyburn said today that state lawmakers originally agreed to place the flag behind the Capitol, but then broke the deal by moving it to a prominent spot in the foreground.

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