That any member of the party of Lincoln could not condemn veneration of the flag for which the martyred president and hundreds of thousands of Americans gave their lives to defeat is, frankly, stunning. Many who seek to lead the party and country in a divisive time showed they are just not up to the task.
Jeb Bush was the best of the 2016 hopefuls, reminding voters he had directed that the Confederate flag come down from the state capitol when he was governor. His statement said that his own position “was clear” and that after the mourning period South Carolina lawmakers should have a discussion about the flag. “I’m confident they will do the right thing,” he said. Perhaps he should have said flat out to “take it down,” but he at least showed thoughtfulness and character on the issue. He left no doubt where he stood.
In a similar vein, former Texas governor Rick Perry told RealClearPolitics, “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.” RCP reported:
Perry, in Washington, D.C., Saturday for the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, stopped short of [demanding that a Confederate flag flying in front of the South Carolina statehouse be taken down], saying, “I think it’s up to the people of South Carolina.” But he made a point of adding: “The people of the state of Texas, we dealt with those issues.”This was a reference to a decision made by the Texas Motor Vehicles Board to reject a proposal by the Sons of Confederate Veterans for specialty license plates featuring the Confederate flag. Perry, who was then governor, supported the decision.“We don’t need to be scraping old wounds,” he said at the time.The Sons of Confederate Veterans took the fight to the legal system, and the U.S. Supreme Court issued its final ruling this week, deciding by a 5-4 vote that the state could indeed ban the image of a Confederate flag on license plates.
The flag is a symbol of hatred and slavery, one that remains hurtful to many Americans and reviled by many more. The “lost cause” and the “heritage” of which people romanticize is the lost cause of the slave-owning South and a heritage of slavery that the country shed blood to extinguish. It is hard to pose as a uniter if you can not recognize all that, seeing the flag for what it is and was. Bush and Perry grasped that.
Although never having to face the issue directly, Carly Fiorina also weighed in: “I think it’s clearly a symbol that is very offensive to many, but my personal opinion is not what’s relevant here. What’s relevant here is what the people of South Carolina choose to do next.” There is nothing of course wrong with giving the people of South Carolina encouragement to do the right thing.
Others refused to say if they had an opinion. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee declared this not to be a 2016 issue. Rick Santorum showed how obtuse he is on matters of race, and how devoid of empathy one can be:
RADDATZ: . . . You saw Mitt Romney’s Tweet, I’m sure, bring down the flag. Jeb Bush has said bring down that flag.Should they bring down that flag?SANTORUM: You know, I — I take the position that the federal government really has no role in determining what the states are going to do.RADDATZ: You’re a candidate for president.SANTORUM: I’m also…RADDATZ: Do you not have a position on this at all?SANTORUM: I’m — I’m not a South Carolinian. And — and I think this is a decision…RADDATZ: It’s beyond South Carolina, don’t you think?SANTORUM: I would say that these are decisions that should be made by — by people — you know, I don’t think the federal government or federal candidates should be making decisions on everything and — and opining on everything. This is a decision that needs to be made here in South Carolina. I have — like everybody else, I have my opinion.But I think the opinion of people here in South Carolina and having them work through this difficulty is much more important than politicizing it.RADDATZ: But — but what is your opinion?SANTORUM: Well, again, it’s — my opinion is that we should let the people of South Carolina go through the process of making this decision.
Santorum can spot Satan in mainline churches, but he has no view whatsoever on the Confederate flag that he is willing to share? Surely conservatives who chastise the president for being divisive on race and failing to unite the country should take a look in the mirror.
There were some candidates who frankly missed a chance to rise to the occasion. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker declared, “Clearly, we need to act at all levels to begin the healing — not just in Charleston but across the country — when it comes to divisions over race. Now, more than ever, we need to find ways to bring our country together. The placement of a Confederate flag on the Capitol grounds is a state issue and I fully expect the leaders of South Carolina to debate this, but the conversation should wait until after the families have had a chance to bury and mourn their loved ones.” But what should they do, what would someone who seeks to lead the country encourage them to do?
Even more surprising, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) did not even mention the Charleston incident when he spoke at the Faith and Freedom gathering on Friday. The Miami Herald reported:
“What I do think is important to remember is that the people of South Carolina have dealt with this issue before. They have found a bipartisan consensus over a decade ago on moving that flag to a new location. And I have confidence in their ability to deal with that issue again. So I think it’s important to let the people of South Carolina move forward on it,” he [told reporters Saturday].Directly asked if the flag should be taken down, Rubio replied: “Ultimately the people of South Carolina will make the right decision for South Carolina and I believe in their capacity to make that decision. The next president of the United States will not make that decision. That’s up for the people of South Carolina to make, and I think they’ll make the right one like they’ve made them in the past.”Rubio said he supported taking down the flag in Florida. As a state legislator, however, he also backed legislation that said no war artifacts “may be relocated, removed, disturbed, or altered.”
At the Faith and Freedom conference one of the participants might have drawn inspiration from Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention (whom CBS’s John Dickerson quoted on Sunday): “That sort of symbolism is out of step with the justice of Jesus Christ. The cross and Confederate Flag cannot coexist without one setting the other on fire.” The most generous explanation would be that they did not want to inject a political position just days after a mass murder. But still.
Recall that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) once employed the “Southern Avenger” and, when it came to light, did not immediately move to fire him (the aide resigned after several days of media pestering). He bristled when the press confronted him and insisted no one who worked for him discriminated. You can go to a lot of historically black colleges, but it will not make up for utter obliviousness toward the feelings of African Americans. It would be helpful if he had weighed in on race and/or the flag, given his unfortunate association with a neo-Confederate.
A presidential candidate, I have argued, need not have an opinion on everything. But plainly in the wake of multiple incidents the country is looking for leadership on race, violence, poverty and other problems that tear at the fabric of civic life. One element of leadership is modeling character traits — honesty, empathy, kindness, historical awareness — and unfortunately too many Republicans did not do that in this instance. They took a process view (not my job!), seemed tentative (now is not the time!) or they acted as if were obligated to be contrarian because liberals deplored flying the Confederate flag.
If Republican presidential candidates want to reach out beyond their core base, they are going to have to show they care about all Americans. Too many in this instance did not and did not demonstrate that they understand the sensibilities of Americans from all walks of life.