Three days ago, Republicans were struggling to answer questions on the Confederate battle flag, which flies on the South Carolina state capitol grounds in Columbia. Even under ordinary circumstances, national Republicans have a hard time with the flag. To reject it is to rebuke the countless white Southerners who claim it as heritage, despite its historic meaning as a symbol of resistance to civil rights. But there’s no victory in embracing it either—it opens you to national criticism of taking part in the worst forms of insensitivity and pandering. And so, for decades, most Republicans muddled around the issue in a not-so-subtle nod to white Southern identity politics. (To his credit, Mitt Romney refused to pander on the flag in 2007 during his first run for the White House, while John McCain called his decision to pander on the flag during his 2000 presidential campaign one of his greatest regrets.)
But muddling wasn’t an option this time. Republicans weren’t just responding to the flag, they were responding to a brutal attack on a historic black church in Charleston. The attack, which killed nine people (including a state senator), was motivated by hate and allegedly carried out by a young white supremacist, Dylann Roof, who wanted to spark a “race war” against black Americans. No, Roof wasn’t inspired to commit his crime by the Confederate flag, but in photos posted online he clearly used the imagery in its original meaning—as a symbol of anti-black animus and racial subjugation. In response to the attack, a bevy of activists—and ordinary South Carolinians—called on the state to remove the flag from the capitol. “The flag has to come down,” said Cornell Brooks, president of the NAACP.
Desperate to deflect and avoid offending white South Carolinians but aware of the circumstances, Republicans tried to sidestep the issue or at least split the difference. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, and Rick Santorum labeled the flag a state issue. “If the state government of South Carolina wishes to address an issue in their state, that’s fine,” said Huckabee, who took an even more aggressive “states’ rights” stance in his first presidential run in 2008. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, tried a noncommittal approach that acknowledged emotions on both sides. “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,” said Perry. Cruz’s statement was a little more cognizant of the flag’s true historic meaning. “I understand the passions that this debate evokes on both sides,” said Cruz. “Both those who see a history of racial oppression and a history of slavery, which is the original sin of our nation.”
Into all of this comes Nikki Haley, Republican governor of South Carolina, serving her second term after winning a nearly 15-point re-election victory last fall. On Friday, she was cautious, telling CBS that she hoped the state could have a conversation with “thoughtful words to be exchanged,” and adding “I think the state will start talking about that again, and we’ll see where it goes.”
On Monday, however—pushed by public outrage—she had changed her tune. In an afternoon press conference with Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, as well as Democratic Rep. James Clyburn, GOP Congressman and former Gov. Mark Sanford, and a whole host of state lawmakers from both parties, Haley urged South Carolina legislators to take down the flag. “It’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds,” said the governor, stating that while residents have the right to show the flag on their property, ”the Statehouse is different, and the events of this past week call upon us to look at this in a different way.”
Removing the flag won’t be easy. Rules limit an upcoming extended session of the General Assembly to just a few concerns—to add the flag to the agenda takes a two-thirds vote of the entire legislature. But with Graham and Scott behind Haley, the statewide GOP establishment seems to support to change. And Haley has pledged to take more direct action if the legislature doesn’t move quickly.
In all likelihood, however, they will. Ahead of Haley’s press conference, South Carolina House Speaker Jay Lucas had urged his colleagues to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. “The intense and difficult debate that took place in 2000 over the Confederate soldier flag was ultimately resolved by compromise,” he said, in a statement. “Wednesday’s unspeakable tragedy has reignited a discussion on this sensitive issue that holds a long and complicated history in the Palmetto State. Moving South Carolina forward from this terrible tragedy requires a swift resolution of this issue.”
Likewise, the Republican chair of the state Senate Judiciary Committee has said he wants a debate next week. “I think conversations are going on as we speak,” said state Sen. Larry Martin. “Obviously the national view of this that has really spawned over the weekend an even greater understanding of how folks outside our state view us because of its presence on the grounds.”
In her case for flag removal, Haley took an even hand. For many, she said, the flag was “a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.” But she also affirmed the “heritage” view of the Confederate battle flag, nodding to Southern identity politics by calling it a symbol of “history” and “ancestry”—a memorial to the Confederate dead. Roof, she said, had a “sick, twisted view of the flag” and did not reflect the views of South Carolinians who “respect and revere it.”
There’s no doubt that Roof was on the fringe of life in South Carolina. But Haley can’t change the fact of the flag’s actual heritage: The Confederacy was a project for the preservation and expansion of slavery, and the Confederate battle flag owes more to the struggle against integration and civil rights than it does to some nebulous—and effectively whites-only—Southern heritage.
Indeed, this particular notion of “heritage” is tied to the anti-Reconstruction historiography of the late 19th century, where white supremacists extolled Confederate valor and painted an antebellum portrait of gentle masters and contented slaves. Racism is central to Confederate iconography in the same way that slavery is central to the Civil War, constant protests notwithstanding.
Of course, Haley isn’t a historian; she’s a politician. And a press conference isn’t the place to contest the deep-rooted views of her constituents. What’s important is that she wants to remove the flag, and while it’s tempting to wonder if she’s sincere—she’s made a complete turnaround from her position last year—it’s also true that, in politics, sincerity isn’t as important as results. What counts is getting it right, and on this issue, Haley has succeeded.
As for the Republican presidential candidates, they now have an out. When anyone asks what they think of the Confederate flag, they can just point to Haley and say, I agree with her. By Monday evening, they had already begun to do that.