I guess the New York Times’ coverage of the Confederate flag issue in the presidential race means we’re back to discussing the issues, right? The Republicans have once again fallen into the trap of talking about the use of the Civil War flag in a presidential campaign, and the national media seems more than eager to highlight it. For this, we can thank Mike Huckabee:
The Republican presidential candidates on Thursday moved to appeal to different types of conservative voters before the South Carolina primary, with Mike Huckabee using colorful language to declare the Confederate flag a states’ rights issue and Senator John McCain embracing a supply-side tax cut proposal.
“You don’t like people from outside the state coming in and telling you what to do with your flag,” Mr. Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, told supporters in Myrtle Beach, according to The Associated Press.
“In fact,” he said, “if somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we’d tell them what to do with the pole; that’s what we’d do.”
At a news conference on Thursday night, he said, “It is not an issue the president of the United States needs to weigh in on.” Mr. Huckabee, who did not say whether he considered it offensive to fly the Confederate battle flag, made his remarks as he toured the state with David Beasley, a former South Carolina governor, who had angered some conservatives by removing the flag from the Capitol dome in Columbia and displaying it elsewhere on the Capitol grounds.
And a radio advertisement paid for by an independent group used the flag issue to attack Mr. McCain, of Arizona, and praise Mr. Huckabee. “John McCain assaults our values,” it said. “Mike Huckabee understands the value of heritage.”
This demonstrates that politicians still have not discovered that while the primaries have short-term, state-by-state applications, the entire campaign gets played on a national stage. This has been true of candidates in both parties who have pandered to issues in the individual states without realizing how their speeches sound to the rest of the country. In this case, it has Republicans around the country cringing.
Fred Thompson has it right, as did Mitt Romney. They both noted that South Carolina’s use of the flag is South Carolina’s business and promptly shut up about it. John McCain should have left it at that but instead decided to pontificate about it on the stump, but at least he got the issue right in terms of the national mood. Huckabee instead pandered to the defenders of a symbol that not only is obviously associated with rebellion, but also in the minds of most people around the nation, Jim Crow and institutionalized racism. For a man who had been talking about federal smoking bans until last week, Huckabee picked a strange battleground for state’s rights.
And the worst part of it is that no conservative has ever argued that the federal government should force South Carolina to eschew the Confederate flag, and I’m not aware of any liberals demanding action from Washington, either. It is a complete straw man. People criticize South Carolina’s use of the flag, but the criticism aims at getting the Palmetto State to dump the flag on its own. What connection that has to a Presidential campaign, other than pandering, eludes most people outside of South Carolina.
Why are the rest of us cringing? Most of the country wonders why some Southerners insist on celebrating the flag of rebellion, a symbol that came to be associated over the years with some ugly practices. Those same people will wonder why its preservation seems such an issue for Republican presidential candidates, when the best course of action would have been to ignore it. Making it a campaign issue gives it more credence and more import than it deserves, both inside and especially outside of South Carolina.
The media loves it. It gives the New York Times and newspapers around the country a great excuse to tie the Confederate flag to the national Republican Party. That’s an association that the rest of the party will strongly resent. Leave the flag to the South Carolinians and start talking about issues that actually matter.