If Republican presidential candidates are hoping the debate over state-endorsed Confederate battle flags will fade away soon, they’re probably going to be disappointed.
State Rep. Doug Brannon, a South Carolina Republican, talked to msnbc’s Chris Hayes on Friday night, and the host asked if he’s prepared to sponsor a bill to take the flag down. It led to this exchange:
BRANNON: That’s correct.HAYES: That’s pretty remarkable. What made you want to do that?BRANNON: I had a friend die Wednesday night for no reason other than he was a black man. Senator Pinkney was an incredible human being.
Note, the debate won’t begin right away. In the interview, Brannon went on to say that his plan is to pre-file the proposal in December, so that the bill will be ready when state lawmakers’ return to work in January for their 2016 session.
Again, just to clarify, Brannon is a Republican, which raises the prospect of a bipartisan bill generating quite a bit of attention next year – just in time for South Carolina’s GOP presidential primary on Feb. 20, 2016.
That’s almost certainly not what the Republicans’ White House hopefuls want to hear. On the contrary, in the face of repeated questioning and considerable public discussion, exactly zero GOP candidates have explicitly called on the state to remove the controversial flag from its Statehouse. Mitt Romney, to his credit, said it’s time for the flag to come down – one of the few positions he’s been consistent on for many years – but Romney, of course, is not a candidate.
The only actual GOP competitor who came close to taking a clear position is Jeb Bush, who issued a statement over the weekend. “Following a period of mourning, there will rightly be a discussion among leaders in the state about how South Carolina should move forward and I’m confident they will do the right thing,” the former Florida governor said.
The implication was that Bush supports the flag’s removal, but his statement didn’t actually say what he believes is “the right thing” to do – which, at a minimum, seemed like a missed opportunity for the former governor to show some leadership.
Aside from Bush, however, the rest of the massive Republican field has hemmed and hawed in recent days, struggling to give a straight answer to simple questions. Romney’s unambiguous statement put added pressure on GOP candidates to speak with clarity, but at least for now, none of the Republicans running are willing to take the risk.
In case it’s not painfully obvious, the New York Times reported, “[S]imilarly to some of their predecessors seeking to win the state’s first-in-the-South primary election, the leading Republican candidates are treading delicately so as not to risk offending the conservative white voters who venerate the most recognizable emblem of the Confederacy.”
The last candidate to make a similar calculus was John McCain, who knew in 2000 that state endorsement of the Confederate flag was wrong, but who was too afraid to say so during his campaign. He later publicly acknowledged his cowardice and expressed regret.
One wonders whether he’ll soon have some company.