How Nikki Haley saved the GOP

For too long, Republicans have grappled with South Carolina's Confederate flag problem. Nikki Haley finally gave them a solution.

Nikki Haley
(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

"We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer," South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) said Monday afternoon, in a televised address to the nation, of the soon-to-be-retired Confederate flag that has flown on the state capitol grounds for decades. And so long as GOP state legislators follow their governor and their party, after 150 years, South Carolina will no longer endorse the Confederate battle flag, but will consign it to a museum to recognize, as Haley emphasized in her address, its place in the state's history.

Haley, surrounded by both Republicans and Democrats on the dais, made a point of saying that "we do not need to declare a winner or a loser here." And yet, winners and losers will nonetheless emerge. Indeed, the Confederate flag controversy that followed the horrific murder of nine black people at Bible study, allegedly by a young white man with a history of racism, may become a major inflection point in the next presidential cycle. And in the end, it may turn out that Republicans are the big winners of the Confederate flag debate — or perhaps more accurately, that Haley has saved her party from ending up the big losers.

The Confederate flag question polarizes South Carolinians, and has ever since it began to fly again over the statehouse in 1962. Beginning in the 1970s, black lawmakers in South Carolina began calling for its removal. Twice during the 1990s, the state legislature killed bills that would have removed the Confederate flag from the dome of the statehouse, and in 2000 the NAACP began boycotting the state, joined by the NCAA in 2001. Later, a compromise moved the flag off of the statehouse dome and onto a display on the grounds of the capitol, a compromise that solved nothing politically.

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By last fall, a Winthrop University poll showed that South Carolina voters were more divided than ever. Overall, voters split nearly evenly between neutral, positive, and negative views of the flag, but the difference between white and black residents was dramatic. Nearly 60 percent of African-Americans held negative views of the Confederate flag, while only 26 percent of whites said the same. More than 73 percent of whites felt that the flag should remain, while 61 percent of blacks wanted it removed. Majorities in each overall age demographic supported its continued display, but younger voters felt the strongest about its removal, with a 53/44 split in favor of the flag.

After last week's brutal murders at Emanuel AME Church, a church with a deep history in the civil rights movement, people of all ideologies expressed their disgust and heartbreak. Voices across political and racial lines called for reconciliation and healing. The state lowered the American flag over the capitol to half-staff to symbolize the unity of mourning from the people of South Carolina and the nation. But stuck at the top of the other pole at the capitol, a circumstance of the statutory compromise that did not allow for a lowering of the flag without legislative action, the Confederate battle banner remained.

The contrasts of rhetoric and symbolism, demonstrated by that banner of disunity and discord in a time of unified sorrow, finally accomplished what five decades of debate had not. Haley's speech, with former supporters of the display, such as GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, by her side will give political cover to state legislators who had already begun to speak out against the display. One Republican legislator, state Rep. Norman Brannon, had already pledged to introduce a bill to bring the flag down after 53 years, saying that the shooting death of his friend, Senate President Clementa Pinckney, had spurred him into action. "I had a friend die on Wednesday night for no other reason than he was a black man," Brannon said.

South Carolina has an early position in the presidential primaries, and the Confederate flag has been a tripwire for Republicans at least since 2000. Thanks to the efforts in the state to end the display, Republican presidential candidates had been pressed in 2000 about whether they supported the state's official endorsement of the Confederate flag — and ended up in a political vise that forced them to take a divisive position in a state where Democrats don't normally compete. Neither George W. Bush nor John McCain opposed the state-sponsored flag display in 2000, a decision that McCain later conceded was regrettable pandering. In 2008, both McCain and Romney recommended that the state remove the flag, while Mike Huckabee endorsed it. Activists ran ads on his behalf attacking the two national frontrunners. Huckabee finished a close second to McCain in the January 2008 primary and picked up five delegates.

After last week's massacre, the flag question would have arisen even more emphatically in 2016 than in the past four cycles. In fact, it had already begun, with reporters demanding positions from this new crop of GOP hopefuls, and voters paying particularly close attention to the answers in the wake of the national focus on Emanuel AME Church and its grieving community in Charleston.

Some will argue that this wouldn't have mattered in South Carolina. Even with Barack Obama on the top of the ticket in the wave election of 2008, McCain won the Palmetto State by nine points on his way to a lopsided loss nationwide. With Obama's retirement in 2016, though, Republicans have an opportunity to start fresh with younger voters and those in minority communities. The RNC certainly wants to reach those voters and at least improve engagement. Had Republicans been forced to defend the flag yet again, or walk away from an opportunity to acknowledge its potent symbolism for blacks in South Carolina, that would have sent a message about the lack of insight and empathy from the GOP toward those communities throughout the entire nation — and could have blown an opportunity for a fresh start.

Instead, Nikki Haley shouldered the political risk and neutralized the issue for Republicans far ahead of the prime-time campaign season. She succeeded by doing the right thing and taking action for unity to match her earlier calls for healing. She may or may not pay a political price in the state if she decides to run for office in South Carolina after her second term as governor expires, but Republican presidential candidates can thank Haley's sense of leadership for getting them off of a very uncomfortable hook.

"I hope that, by removing the flag, we can take another step towards healing and recognition," Haley said in her speech, "and a sign that South Carolina is moving forward." Perhaps the nation can as well.

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