As Graham shifts on flag, rest of GOP field must follow

Senator Lindsey Graham.
Senator Lindsey Graham.AP/file 2015/Associated Press

Lindsey Graham showed some long-overdue leadership on Monday, when South Carolina’s senior senator joined other top officials in urging his state to remove the Confederate flag from its statehouse grounds. He was also the first current GOP presidential candidate to make such an explicit statement. Hopefully, Graham’s stance will prod the rest of the Republican field to follow suit. One way or another, it’s time to banish the hateful symbol from mainstream politics.

It took the cold-blooded killing of nine worshipers at an African-American church in Charleston last week, allegedly by a white supremacist gunman, to revive the debate in South Carolina over the flag. The banner currently flies on the statehouse grounds, the result of a compromise in 2000, when it was removed from an even more prominent place atop the building.

Supporters of flying the flag have justified it as a tribute to the sacrifice of southern Civil War soldiers — yet the state didn’t raise the flag over the State House dome in Columbia until 1962, amid opposition to the civil rights movement. It was clear enough to the alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, that the flag symbolized the system of white supremacy that those Confederate soldiers fought to preserve. Nothing in the flag’s origins, or the way it has been used in the 150 years since, supports any other conclusion.


To avoid offending white conservative voters, though, GOP candidates have hid behind euphemisms, or passed the buck by insisting the issue was none of their business. Mitt Romney was one of the rare exceptions, a stance he repeated on Twitter recently. This year, none of Graham’s competitors have distinguished themselves with their weak responses to the flag issue; Jeb Bush came closest to calling for its removal, but his statement was so indirect that it should hardly win any awards for courage.

Another Republican candidate, Ted Cruz, changed the subject by saying nobody should be “dictating” to South Carolina how to handle the flag issue. Well, yes; neither Cruz nor any other candidate can dictate a solution. But politicians ought to be able to express a view that such a fundamentally anti-American symbol doesn’t belong on public buildings.

At least in South Carolina, it seems that the shooting has led to a more honest reckoning about the flag, and what it really symbolizes. The governor, Nikki Haley, has shifted her position and called on the Legislature to remove it. It’s time for each GOP candidate to endorse, without reservation, the same conclusion that Graham and Haley have: The Confederate flag must come down, and stay down.