Mitt Romney is right about South Carolina and the Confederate battle flag flying near its state capitol:
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) June 20, 2015
But boy, he sure put his would-be successors as Republican presidential nominee in a tight spot.
As the country stays focused on Charleston, where nine black congregants of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were murdered, allegedly by reputed white supremacist Dylann Roof last week, the calls to remove the Confederate flag from the state house grounds have grown louder and louder. Republican presidential candidates appear to be listening, but noncommittal.
As The Week's Paul Waldman points out, South Carolina holds the third primary contest (after Iowa and New Hampshire), making it host to "a festival of pandering, as candidates seek to convince the state's extremely conservative Republicans that their culture, their perspective, their resentments, and their anger are shared by the national party and its representatives."
The problem is that when it comes to the Confederate battle flag, that doesn't play well outside of the South. Many white Southerners see the flag as a symbol of their past and a cause their ancestors fought for, not as a pro-slavery banner. For many voters outside of the South, the flag is a divisive, racially charged symbol of a war that ended 150 years ago.
Taking a position on whether South Carolina should remove the flag thus puts Republican presidential contenders in the position of either losing an important primary state or losing points with large numbers of voters in states that the Republican candidate won't automatically win.
So far, no 2016 Republican candidate has called for the flag's removal. Jeb Bush, who removed the Confederate battle flag from Florida's capitol in 2001 when he was governor, maybe came the closest: After noting that he moved the Confederate flag "to a museum where it belonged," he said "there will rightly be a discussion among leaders in the state about how South Carolina should move forward and I'm confident they'll do the right thing."
Most other Republicans either refused to comment on the Confederate flag — including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who more than any other 2016 GOP contender has reached out to black voters — or said, like Bush, that the issue should be left to South Carolina voters.
That's the same answer, essentially, as given by George W. Bush in the 2000 primary race, before he crucially beat Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in an ugly South Carolina primary. McCain, after denouncing the flag as a "symbol of racism and slavery," switched to a let-South-Carolina-decide posture — a politically calculated flip-flop he later called one of the worst decisions of his political career. Romney has also consistently criticized South Carolina's Confederate flag. McCain won the 2008 primary, despite his public 2000 regrets, but Romney lost to Newt Gingrich in the Palmetto State in 2012.
South Carolina conservatives might still not care for Romney's opinion, but it matters more than the GOP might wish. Because Romney took his unequivocal stand against the flag publicly and so soon after the shooting, every 2016 contender will be asked their opinion, and all responses will be measured against his.
Democrats will face their own no-win questions in the 2016 race, but President Obama took a moment to make this particular one even harder for the 2016 Republicans:
Good point, Mitt. https://t.co/Ryusfp8Xbh
— President Obama (@POTUS) June 21, 2015
It will take two-thirds of the South Carolina House and Senate to remove the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds, and as the GOP candidates point out, it's a decision only South Carolina can make. For the sake of the 2016 Republicans, South Carolina should probably make that decision before the state legislature gavels back into session in January 2016, right as the eyes of the nation turn once again to the Palmetto State and the Republicans asking for its votes.