Gov. Haley, Candidates: Confederate Flag Should Go

Gov. Haley, Candidates: Confederate Flag Should Go
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In a remarkable display of the power of the public to swiftly move politics, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and both of the state’s Republican U.S. senators have called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the grounds of the State Capitol.

And one by one, presidential candidates who have been engaged in a difficult balancing act on the issue began to follow suit.

In the wake of last week's horrific slayings of nine black parishioners in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, Haley said, “It’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds.” Police believe the killings were carried out by a racially motivated 21-year-old man who posed with a Confederate flag in photos and had a Confederate flag vanity plate on his car.

The governor said that while the Confederate battle flag is part of South Carolina’s soil and could be displayed in private, “The Statehouse is different, and the events of this past week call upon us to look at it in a different way.”

The flag, which flies at a Confederate memorial on the Capitol campus,  “does not represent the future of our great state,” Haley said inside the Capitol. “The fact that it causes pain for so many is enough to remove it from the Capitol grounds." 

The flag’s removal, however, must be authorized by the legislature, which comes back for a special session this week to address other topics before recessing until the end of the year. Haley said she would call another special session if members of the assembly could not address the issue this week. A bipartisan group of state lawmakers has called for the flag’s removal. 

Standing behind the governor were South Carolina Sens. Lindsey Graham, who is running for president in 2016, and Tim Scott, the Senate’s only black Republican and the first black Southerner to be elected to the upper chamber since Reconstruction. A group of bipartisan lawmakers and activists -- including Rep. Jim Clyburn, an African-American and third-ranking House Democrat, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus -- also joined the news conference.

“After the tragic, hate-filled shooting in Charleston, it is only appropriate that we deal once and for all with the issue of the flag,” Graham said in a statement.

After the news conference, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker tweeted that he supported Haley's directive. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is leaning toward a presidential run, also indicated his support, as did Jeb Bush and Rick Perry. 

The candidates' approval on Monday underscored how politically untenable the flag’s placement has become. After the killings last week, Graham said the flag was part of the state’s history and should remain. Last year while running for re-election, Haley defended the flag’s placement, noting that business leaders had not objected to it.

Walker had advocated for the decision on the flag to be up the state, and said he wanted to wait until after the funerals of the victims before engaging the debate. Over the weekend, Kasich has said a decision on the flag was up to the state, but that if he were a South Carolinian, he’d want it taken down. Bush and Marco Rubio argued for the decision to be up to the state, but noted the way in which Florida moved to take down the flag from statehouse grounds. Perry, in an interview with RealClearPolitics, acknowledged that the flag “divides people.”

Until Monday, no Republican candidate had weighed in as forcefully as former presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who tweeted that to many, “The flag was a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor the Charleston victims.” Romney has long objected to the flag’s presence on state grounds, despite the political implications for Republican contenders.

But the impossible-to-ignore groundswell of opposition to the flag over the past few days, including from Romney and both Republican and Democratic state lawmakers, summoned quick action. The Republican Party has also signaled an imperative to address the issue now. “This flag has become too divisive and too hurtful for too many of our fellow Americans,” said RNC Chairman Priebus. “While some say it represents different things to different people, there is no denying that it also represents serious divisions that must be mended in our society.”

The flag’s existence on state grounds has long been a point of contention, with defenders viewing it as a symbol of the state’s history and its opponents seeing it at a symbol of racism. But the shocking killings last week brought the issue again into the public sphere, and put pressure on Republican candidates seeking the presidency to weigh in on the debate.

The issue has seeped into presidential politics before, as the state hosts the South’s first primary. Republicans have argued it is up to the state, not the federal government, to decide where the flag is allowed. After losing the primary in 2000, however, John McCain later recanted his defense of the flag, admitting he did so for political reasons. The issue is particularly tricky as the party hopes to court and engage white, conservative voters in the primary, but faces an increasingly diverse general electorate.

Haley’s move gives candidates political cover to call for its removal, and her statement was delicately worded to address the state-versus-federal rights issue Republicans are concerned about.

“By removing a symbol that divides us, we can proceed in harmony,” she said. “This is South Carolina’s statehouse. This is South Carolina’s historic moment.”

At the press conference’s conclusion, Haley hugged Congressman Clyburn and Senator Scott, who stood at her side.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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