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The GOP’s remarkably rapid political shift on the Confederate flag

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (R) called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol following the fatal shooting of nine African Americans in a Charleston church. (Video: South Carolina ETV)

On Monday, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) told America she would support an effort to remove the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds in South Carolina.

Using a slightly different but similar set of words, so did Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina vying for the White House, and the state's other GOP senator, Tim Scott. So, too, did Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky. And so, too, did former governor Rick Perry, a Republican from Texas running for president, and former South Carolina governor and now-Rep. Mark Sanford.

And, within moments of Haley's announcement, two Wisconsinites -- Gov. Scott Walker (R) and Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus -- offered more tempered endorsements of the idea. Both said they supported Haley's call for the flag to come down.

By late Monday, the GOP speaker of the Mississippi state House said the Confederate flag should be removed from his state's flag, too.

It was as if some kind of interrogation room spotlight was turned on Monday and Republican officials all over the country suddenly, all at once, saw the flag in a new and different way. Of course, opinions do change. Circumstances can make even the most complicated issues clear and new constituencies matter. But it is also possible that what we witnessed Monday was a great flight to a new position now that it constitutes relatively safe political ground. Haley's decision to go there — as the governor of the last state to fly the Confederate flag above its capitol dome — freed up others to say, "Me too!"

If so, that's the kind of mass and seemingly well-timed shift that we've seen from elected officials many times before — most recently on the other side of the aisle.

Social video captured the scene outside the state Capitol in Columbia, S.C., where demonstrators rallied against the Confederate flag. (Video: The Washington Post)

In May 2012, President Obama told reporters that his views on gay marriage had "evolved." In the months that followed, so did the public positions of many other Democrats. By April of the following year, only three Senate Democrats remained publicly opposed to gay marriage. In fact, in the preceding months, more than a dozen senators announced their support for same-sex marriage. And that group also included two Republicans: Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Rob Portman of Ohio.

Of course, if one-time presidential adviser David Axelrod is to be believed, Obama supported gay marriage long ago but did not say so for political reasons.

As for the Republican shift on the Confederate flag, it's worth noting that a roll call of Confederate banner opponents seemed to follow in the days after 2012 GOP presidential nominee Gov. Mitt Romney called for South Carolina officials to remove the Confederate flag from the state house grounds immediately.

That idea, as has been widely reported, got a retweet and full endorsement from the president, who defeated Romney less than three years ago.

By Monday morning, Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, had all but joined Romney.

Other candidates vying for the GOP nomination in 2016 have been a bit more circumspect. Those include Ben Carson, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and former tech executive Carly Fiorina. All have expressed personal concerns about the flag and/or a desire to see it moved from the state house grounds into a museum. But they have also suggested that the decision ultimately belonged to the residents of South Carolina.

Most of these politicians haven't had to weigh in on the flag before. One Republican whose feelings on the flag are well-established, though, is Jeb Bush, who fought against the Confederate flag as governor in the early 2000s. He offered Haley his congratulations for "doing the right thing" in a tweet.

Of course, the flag's current location — padlocked at full-staff — on the state capitol grounds came out of a 2000 compromise. That agreement took the Confederate flag off a capitol dome flagpole and put it on a Confederate memorial nearby. The state also added a monument recognizing its African American history. But the deal also aimed to all but lock this arrangement in place, requiring a super-majority (two-thirds) of the state legislature to approve any changes.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum, both of whom are seeking the 2016 Republican nomination, have said that there are few reasons for federal candidates to offer up their opinion on the Confederate flag. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who is expected to announce his campaign for the White House this week, added similar comments. Jindal also told reporters that the time to discuss the flag's future would come after those killed in the Charleston church shooting last week have been properly mourned.

Haley herself had previously stayed away from the flag issue. During a 2014 gubernatorial debate, she described the banner as acceptable because it did not trouble CEOs contemplating the idea of moving their businesses to South Carolina. She also suggested that her election — as an Indian American woman — meant the state had moved forward and things like the Confederate flag weren't that important to discuss.

But on Monday, Haley said this was no longer a matter of debate between men and women who look at the flag as a symbol of a "noble history" and those who see it as a distinctive emblem of brutal oppression.

And the growing procession of Republicans who suddenly decided that they agreed — while perhaps not politically courageous — is significant.