The recent shootings in the Emanuel Church of Charleston, South Carolina have sparked a debate other than the predictable outcry for and against gun rights. When the killer, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, was apprehended, his car displayed the Confederate flag. The flag was removed from the State House in July of 2000. A Confederate flag still flies on the grounds of the state Capitol. The recent tragedy has pulled many political leaders, some reluctantly, into the flag debate once more. So where do they stand?
The 2016 presidential aspirants fall into five groups: those who are for the flag’s removal, those who oppose it, those who see it exclusively as a states’ rights issue, and those who have not been reported as taking a position as of yet. In the first group, those who favor the flag’s removal, period, we have the following: Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, George Pataki, and Rick Perry. The lone candidate whose stated position is leaving the flag up is Lindsey Graham. The candidates who prefer the State of South Carolina decide are Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich. Patently unclear in his position is Bernie Sanders. And we have yet to hear from Chris Christie, Martin O’Malley, Donald Trump, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, and Lincoln Chafee.
Here is a sampling of the candidates’ positions on this most controversial issue. Said Mike Huckabee, “I don’t personally display the flag, so it’s not an issue for me. That is an issue for the people of South Carolina.” Lindsey Graham said the flag is “part of who we are” in South Carolina. Marco Rubio opined, “The people of South Carolina will make the right decision for South Carolina and I believe in their capacity to make that decision.” Rick Perry said, “In Texas we dealt with those issues,” referring to Texas’ decision to ban the federate emblem from license plates. While leaving the decision to state government, Perry’s view is obvious. Clinton called for the flag’s removal in 2007, in part because “the nation should unite under one banner while at war.” John Kasich said, “It is up to the people of South Carolina to decide.”
John McCain took the politically expedient route when running for president in 2008, saying the issue had no place in national politics. He later regretted this stance, saying he had “not told the truth” about his position. Mitt Romney has called for bringing down the flag. President Obama has praised Romney for stating his position. I’m sure other candidates will weigh in on the issue very soon.
So what are we to take from these varied positions? Let’s review. To date, four candidates have called for the flag’s removal, one says to leave it up, seven leave it to the state of South Carolina, seven had yet to weigh in, and one is unclear. To be fair, many of those who emphasize leaving the decision to the state of South Carolina have made their personal views against the flag clear, but they are more passionate about states’ rights.
So what do we take from these varied positions? I’m not sure of any issue that receives such diverse response among the current crop of presidential candidates. How a person judges these candidates’ responses depends on that person’s perspective. Some voters will side with candidates who agreed with their position to bring the flag down or leave it up. Some will side with candidates who have staked out a position that emphasizes the state’s rights to make these decisions. Others will view this as deflection and reluctance to take a position. And all voters have a point. I would suggest the position on the Confederate flag issue, though rife with emotion, is not as important as the principles that direct presidential candidates to their positions. The issue is much bigger than where they stand on this issue. The bigger issue is how they got there, and what that says about how they will weigh in on other issues, whether on a state or federal level.