Republicans tread carefully on issue of Confederate flag

Presidential hopefuls dare not risk offending conservative white voters

The Confederate battle flag (right) on the grounds of the South Carolina State House against the backdrop of the US flag and South Carolina state flag flying at half mast in the wake of the Charleston murders last week.
The Confederate battle flag (right) on the grounds of the South Carolina State House against the backdrop of the US flag and South Carolina state flag flying at half mast in the wake of the Charleston murders last week.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - The massacre of nine African-Americans in a famous church in Charleston last week, which thrust the issues of race relations and gun rights into the centre of the 2016 presidential campaign, has added another divisive question for the Republican nomination candidates: What to do with the Confederate battle flag that flies on the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol.

The state's presidential primary is the first in the US South and the leading Republican candidates for 2016 are treading delicately.

They do not want to risk offending the conservative white voters who venerate the most recognisable emblem of the Confederacy, the 11 Southern states that seceded from the United States in 1860-61 and set up their own federal government, fighting a civil war that led eventually to their defeat in 1865.

The most prominent Democratic contender, Mrs Hillary Clinton, had said in 2007 that the flag should be removed.

But among Republican candidates, Mr Jeb Bush last Saturday said South Carolina "will do the right thing", and Senator Marco Rubio said he thought the state would "make the right choice".

But neither candidate - both from Florida - would state explicitly whether he wanted South Carolina to stop the state-sanctioned display of a flag that is a particularly searing reminder of slavery, a core issue in the Confederacy states' secession.

Even after online pictures of the suspect in the massacre, Dylann Roof, holding the Confederate battle flag and a gun surfaced last Saturday, none of the candidates who appeared on Sunday's political television programmes were willing to say flatly whether the flag should continue to fly at the South Carolina Capitol.

It is a vivid illustration of the difficulties Republicans face in attempting to broaden their party's appeal to minorities while also energising white conservatives.

"The politics of race rests at the most sensitive nerve of the GOP," said Mr Bruce Haynes, a Republican strategist and South Carolina native.

The flag's placement has a long history in South Carolina, originally placed atop the Capitol in 1962 as the civil rights movement gained steam, ostensibly to mark the centennial of the Civil War.

Former governor David Beasley, a Republican, had called for the flag to be re-positioned on the grounds instead. The move won him little black support and a backlash from some whites in his losing bid for re-election in 1998.

Slow to react they may have been, but Republican candidates have realised that they had to speak more plainly about the racial motivation behind the attack.

"I think the act, the crime that was committed... is an act of racism," Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin said last Saturday. Mr Rubio called the massacre "an act motivated by racial hatred".

But Mr Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, runner-up in the 2008 contest and who is contesting again, suggested that no one from outside the state should dictate what South Carolina does, a position similar to that taken by Mr George W. Bush and Senator John McCain in the 2000 nominating race.

However, one Republican legislator is already pushing to take it down. State Representative Norman Brannon, whose friend Clementa Pinckney was the preacher slain in the attack, said he would file a Bill in the next session of the legislature to remove the flag from the Capitol grounds.

Unless Governor Nikki Haley calls the legislature back into a special session, the state will most likely take up the issue when the next session begins in January - shortly before South Carolina's presidential primary.

But many prominent Republicans are privately hoping the state reaches a consensus well before that point to avert a primary dominated by race-related issues.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2015, with the headline 'Republicans tread carefully on issue of Confederate flag'. Subscribe