Nikki Haley on Monday did something that The New York Times said just a week ago seemed politically impossible: As the Republican governor of South Carolina — one of the most conservative states in the nations — she called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the State Capitol.
The flag is widely seen as a racially offensive representation of slavery, oppression and opposition to civil rights for blacks, but for many South Carolinians it is something much different: a symbol of their “heritage and ancestry,” as Haley described it. “Today we are here in a moment of unity in our state, without ill will, to say it’s time to move the flag from the capitol grounds,” Haley said, flanked by Republican and Democratic officials.
But if Haley’s call seemed politically impossible a week ago, as The Times said, it might have been politically inevitable by Monday. The racially inspired murders of the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney and eight of his parishioners at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church had sparked national outrage, but they also put Republican leaders, including a number of the party’s presidential hopefuls, in a precarious position. Calling for the flag to be removed risked offending some South Carolina voters who embraced it as part of their past and their tradition. Saying it should stay, risked offending much of the rest of the country — or being seen as pandering to voters in an early primary state.
The result this time, as it was so many times before, was mealy-mouthed statements about the flag from GOP presidential contenders.
From Jeb Bush: “My position on how to address the Confederate flag is clear…. 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."
From Marco Rubio: “Ultimately the people of South Carolina will make the right decision for South Carolina, and I believe in their capacity to make that decision.”
From Rick Perry: “I think a governor’s job should be one to bring people together, not to divide them, and I think the Confederate battle flag is clearly one of those that divides people.”
Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina all held off on voicing their own opinions, saying the decision should be left to the people of South Carolina.
Contrast those positions with the statement issued by Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, who had also refused to pander to South Carolina voters on the flag issue during his previous campaign for the White House, in 2007:
By speaking up and speaking so bluntly — with none of the hedging, hemming or hawing we’re so used to from our politicians — Romney added pressure on his fellow Republicans to take a stand as well. And some of those Republicans, in turn, offered “subtle encouragement” to Haley to ditch the flag, as The Times reports.
She had little choice now, especially after it came out that Dylann Roof, the young white supremacist allegedly behind the church slayings, had taken up the flag as a symbol of hate in pictures posted online. “The events of this week call upon us to look at this in a different way,” she said.
Republicans who had tiptoed around the issue in the past couldn’t anymore, so Haley did what she needed to do. She did the right thing — for herself, her state and her party. Preserving the status quo at this point would have been politically impossible.
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