Confederate flag hangs over South Carolina Republican primary
By Cameron Joseph
The confederate flag has long been a divisive issue in South Carolina politics, and it may soon reemerge as a factor in what will be a key state in the Republican presidential primary.
South Carolina Republicans have sought to downplay the flag’s role in the GOP contest, but there are indications that it will once again grab headlines.
Rick Perry recently waded in, expressing opposition to allowing some Texas license plates to display the stars and bars.
Herman Cain, an African American who is a front-runner for the GOP nomination, has yet to say where he stands on the flag.
“We are focused on fixing this economy and creating jobs through our 9-9-9 plan,” Cain spokesman J.D. Gordon told The Hill.
Most of the other presidential campaigns declined to comment.
It is likely that Cain and other candidates will have to spell out where they stand. The GOP candidates will face off in South Carolina on Saturday evening though that debate is focused on foreign policy.
Some Republicans in the Palmetto State say the ailing economy eclipses everything else, adding that the confederate flag is unlikely to motivate voters as it has in the past. They note that many voters consider the matter settled since a 2000 compromise removed the flag from the top of the statehouse.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said, “They moved the flag off the Capitol dome. I don’t know why [the candidates] would bring it up.”
“The statehouse has resolved this in a bipartisan way. People are focused on jobs,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “Any [candidate] who brought that up wouldn’t be doing themselves any favors.”
Despite the 2000 agreement, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) had to deal with questions about the flag in his 2008 bid to win the GOP presidential nomination.
And the flag was a defining issue of the 1996 and 2000 Republican primaries as the state went through an emotional battle over whether it should continue to fly over the state capitol building.
McCain may have cost himself the 2000 South Carolina primary when he called the flag “a symbol of racism and slavery” before trying to walk back his comments.
After he lost the primary, McCain went back to his earlier position, apologizing for what he called “a sacrifice of principle for personal ambition.”
Eight years later, McCain was once again criticized in South Carolina, with protestors dogging his campaign — as well as that of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), who called the flag “divisive” and said it “shouldn’t be shown.”
Clearly, the debate over the flag is not over.
In a floor speech earlier this month, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) said the Confederate flag is a symbol of “a Klansman of the late 1880s and early 1900s, the brutality of slavery,” and “an ugly reminder of the past of our history.”
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has boycotted the state since the 2000 compromise kept the flag flying on the capitol grounds (although not above the dome). The National Collegiate Athletic Association has refused to host major events in South Carolina for the past decade.
“[The candidates] are happy to avoid it, nobody wants to touch that thing again,” said Dave Woodard, a Clemson professor and Republican strategist in the state who has worked for Graham, DeMint as well as on President George W. Bush’s successful campaign in the 2000 South Carolina primary. “It’s a lose-lose situation. You’re going to alienate somebody and politics is a game of addition, not subtraction.”
Two weeks ago, Perry came out against allowing the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), a southern heritage organization which the liberal Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled a “hate group,’ to put their stars and bars logo on Texas vanity license plates.
“You don’t need to scrape that wound again,” he told a Florida radio station.
His statement likely influenced the state board’s unanimous decision on Friday against allowing the plate to be made, just months after it had deadlocked 4-4. The SCV has promised to take the issue to court.
Ron Wilson, a former head of the SCV who helped lead protests in 2008, said has no plans to resurrect the issue. However, if the candidates criticize the stars and bars, he won’t stay silent.
“What any politician has to say about the confederate flag in South Carolina will certainly be looked at by a lot of people,” Wilson told The Hill. “I know if they come out forcibly against it they’re writing off a huge vote in the South.”
He called Perry a “flip-flopper” for his decision on the Texas license plates. “I’m unhappy with any politician who’s critical with our heritage, it doesn’t make a difference if it’s Romney, Perry or anyone else,” he said.
In 2010, NAACP President Ben Jealous called for South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) to remove the flag from the statehouse grounds. Haley responded by declaring the matter resolved.
“More than a decade ago, under the leadership of a Democratic governor, South Carolinians —Republican and Democrat, black and white — came to a compromise position on the Confederate flag,” Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said at the time. “Many people were uncomfortable with that compromise, but it addressed a sensitive subject in a way that South Carolina as a whole could accept.”
Woodard said that if the issue is forced upon the candidates, the best answer was to avoid addressing one’s personal thoughts on the flag and say that it’s a matter for the state to decide — as Bush did in 2000.
“The safe thing to say is it’s an issue for South Carolina, not for the presidency,” he said. “That’s become almost a mantra of what everybody says.”
© 2011 Capitol Hill Publishing Corp