As South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) argued Monday that the Confederate flag should be removed from the state Capitol grounds, she was flanked by lawmakers and officials in a show of broad support. Perhaps none was more politically significant than Reince Priebus, national chairman of the Republican Party.
Ever since last week's mass shooting at a black church in Charleston, for which a white man has been charged, leading Republicans had mostly avoided wading into the debate over whether the flag should be removed from state property and moved to a museum, as many have suggested. But Priebus's presence alongside Haley sent a strong signal about where he thinks the GOP ought to be on this issue.
It came at a critical time for a party that is trying to repair its image among minorities, who have sided overwhelmingly with Democratic presidential candidates in recent elections. As President Obama and other Democrats called for the flag to be removed over the weekend, most leading Republicans declined to take a position.
Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker didn't explicitly call for the flag to be removed on Saturday after 2012 nominee Mitt Romney did. "This is an issue that they should debate and work through and not have a bunch of outsiders going in and telling them what to do," Rubio told reporters.
On Monday afternoon, for many in the 2016 field, that swiftly changed.
Walker applauded Haley's decision. Rubio was less definitive but applauded her "leadership." Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry backed her call. Home state Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) called for officials to remove the flag "once and for all." Jeb Bush -- who as Florida governor had removed a flag containing the Confederate symbol from his own state's Capitol grounds -- also voiced support.
Of course, both the flood of support now and the careful treading just 48 hours ago reflect the fact that taking the anti-flag position after the Republican governor of the state does is far less risky than doing so beforehand. No serious candidate for president wants to be on the losing side of a public debate in the always important early voting state of South Carolina.
So it's not as if Priebus's presence in Columbia on Monday somehow magically changed everyone's mind on its own. But it was intended to send a message to voters who may have been disappointed to see GOP leaders sit on the sidelines over the weekend that the Republican Party hears their concerns and is taking steps to try to make things better.
“This flag has become too divisive and too hurtful for too many of our fellow Americans," Priebus said in a statement. "While some say it represents different things to different people, there is no denying that it also represents serious divisions that must be mended in our society. For South Carolina, taking down this Confederate flag is a step in mending those divisions. Our future must be better than our past. We are not meant to be a country divided by racial tensions; we are meant to be a country that stands united."
Priebus is a political insider, not a public office holder like Haley. His record for the next two years, and his legacy as chairman -- fair or not -- will be judged largely on whether a Republican wins the White House in 2016 or not. He is as in tune with raw politics as anyone. So while his his decision to go to Columbia may reflect his personal beliefs, it also reflects the reality that taking a public stand against the Confederate flag is an important part of the GOP's pitch to voters ahead of November 2016. Making that pitch is his job.
And the fact that he hails from Wisconsin, not South Carolina, signaled to Republicans that it was okay to weigh in without feeling like you are meddling in local matters.
What makes Priebus's job difficult: Often, his ultimate goal is not aligned with the individual goals of his party's top presidential hopefuls, who regularly walk fine lines, refuse to take hard positions, play both sides and cater to the political right over fears of alienating conservative activists who show up to vote in primaries.
It's not easy to balance the demands of the general election with the rigors of the nominating process. And Republicans may have further damaged their standing among minorities with their initial resistance to calling for the Confederate flag to be taken down in the state Capitol.
But simply by showing up in Columbia Monday, Priebus may have at least limited that damage and signaled to his party where it ought to be right now. We'll find out in the coming months how successful he was.