Will take more than pulling flag

Published 10:07 am Thursday, June 25, 2015

In the annals of political flip flops — or “evolutions,” if you prefer — none have arguably rivaled the breathtaking triple back flip executed late Monday by the governor of South Carolina.

After years of defending the presence of the Confederate flag on the Capitol grounds, Nikki Haley suddenly declared, “It’s time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds. One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, the time has come.” And her fellow Republicans in attendance nodded in sage unison – including GOP presidential candidate Lindsey Graham, who, only four days ago, had insisted that the flag of racist hatred was fine where it was because it’s “part of who we are.”

And sure enough, the cowardly cadre of Republican presidential candidates – none of whom had mustered the moral moxie to demand that South Carolina remove the flag – suddenly found their voices. For instance, Scott Walker: “I support her decision.” Marco Rubio: “I appreciate and respect her statement.” In translation: “Phew, we’re off the hook! Yeah, what Nikki said!”

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It’s pathetic that nine innocent people had to die, at the hands of a Confederate flag-loving racist, before South Carolina’s leaders roused themselves to do what should’ve been done decades ago. Haley basically admitted this, saying, “The events of the past week call upon all of us to look at this in a different way.” Wow, talk about a Confederacy of Dunces.

But hey, better late than never, right? And, in all likelihood, her predominantly white Republican legislature will duly vote later this year to stick the thing in some museum where it belongs.

It would be wrong to suggest, however, that Haley reversed herself on the flag merely because “the events of the past week” had prompted her. Lest we forget, politicians generally act in the public interest only when it dovetails with their self-interest. And her pirouette on the flag is a classic example.

She’s term-limited – her gubernatorial tenure ends in 2018 – and she wants to have a political future. As an Indian-American, she’s well aware that the GOP needs to transcend its white base. What better way to start building a cross-racial national brand than to remove the Confederate flag? Some Southerners will be ticked off, but in the end most people won’t care (in a recent Winthrop University poll, only 30.5 percent of South Carolinians said they had positive feelings about the flag). So the smart political move is to jump in front of the parade.

She also realized that the flag’s prominence was bad for business. South Carolina, once a backwater for textile mills, has been trying to diversify its economy for years – BMW arrived in the 1990s, Boeing arrived in 2009 – and business leaders have been privately contending that the state would do better if the flag came down.

Glenn McCall, a Republican national committeeman who stood with Haley on Monday, said: “We were missing out on some great opportunities to showcase our state. We’ve lost some NCAA tournaments, some big companies looking to relocate because of that flag.”

So, for Haley, the smart political move is to lead the state into the future.

And by moving on the flag, she earned IOUs from the 2016 Republican candidates. They owe her now, because she gave them political cover. They were able to hide behind her skirt, and for that they will be grateful. She just enhanced her future prospects for a prominent D.C. job in a Republican administration, or perhaps for a veep slot.

This is how the game is played, which is fine. In politics, the right thing is typically done for a host of self-interested reasons. But let’s also keep this episode in perspective. The Confederate flag is low-hanging fruit that is relatively easy to pluck. Our systemic injustices, and our gun epidemic, will not be erased by consigning cloth to a museum display case. On those fronts, all politicians, in both parties, will have to work a lot harder.


Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at dickpolman7@gmail.com.