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It should not require political bravery to take down the flag

Senator Tim Scott, Governor Nikki Haley, and state Senator Wendell Gilliard attended a prayer vigil Thursday at Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston, S.C.REUTERS

Republican presidential contenders are ready to stand up to ISIS, Iran, and Vladimir Putin.

South Carolina’s Republican primary voters are another matter.

When it came to leadership on the issue of taking down the Confederate battle flag that files at the state Capitol in Columbia, the first instinct of these passionate disciples of steelier American spine was to turn into jelly fish.

Mitt Romney — the 2012 GOP nominee, who twice lost the South Carolina primary contest and is not running for president in 2016 — was the first Republican leader to bluntly call the Confederate flag what, to many, he said it is: “a symbol of racial hatred.”

“Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims, ” tweeted Romney, after pictures of Dylann Roof — the suspect in the murders of nine African-Americans in a Charleston church — showed him holding a Confederate flag and a gun.


On Monday, South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, echoed Romney’s call.

It’s too late now for anyone else to be called a profile in courage. The best they can do is “evolve” — like Hillary Clinton on gay marriage.

Jeb Bush recently called out Putin as “a bully,” but seemed a bit intimidated by South Carolina’s flag controversy. As governor of Florida, Bush moved the Confederate flag that flew outside that state capitol to a museum. Yet he took a pass on telling South Carolinians to follow suit. “They will do the right thing,” he said — tweeting “kudos” to Haley as if that changed his own initial dodge.

After blasting President Obama as “a weak president,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida pledged a tougher foreign policy approach. But the Confederate flag represented one problem Rubio preferred to keep at arm’s length. He said he supported Bush’s decision in Florida and believed “ultimately the people of South Carolina will make the right decision for South Carolina.” But he wouldn’t say what that “right decision” should be.


According to a reaction roundup in The New York Times, compiled before Haley’s announcement, Ohio Governor John Kasich said, “If I were a citizen of South Carolina, I’d be for taking it down.” Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive, said the flag was “a symbol of racial hatred,” but deemed her personal opinion irrelevant. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas told The Washington Post, “I think often this issue is used as a wedge to try to divide people.”

Former Texas governor Rick Perry allowed that “maybe there’s a good conversation that needs to be had.” Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin said he wouldn’t answer questions about the Confederate flag until the shooting victims were buried. On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Mike Huckabee said placement of the Confederate flag is “not an issue for a person running for president.”

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is also running for president, went from saying it was an issue worth revisiting, to calling for the flag to come down.

In South Carolina, it has always been a tough issue. In 1996, then-Governor David Beasley, a Republican, proposed moving the flag to a monument on the State House grounds, where it has been flying since 2000. However, Beasley lost reelection, and in 2003 was awarded a Profile in Courage award from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library for his flag stand — cold comfort, no doubt, to these 2016 hopefuls.


While they huff and puff about ISIS, Iran, and Putin, the Confederate flag represents a form of tyranny these candidates were much less willing to confront.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.