How Confederate-flag GOP Presidential Politics in South Carolina Have Changed…for the Better

In 2000, John McCain felt like he needed to 'lie' about his distaste for the flag; by 2012 it was a non-issue


Back in 2000, when GOP presidential primaries were contested by a mere single handful rather than an entire NBA traveling team, one of the most disproportionately significant side-issues of the campaign was what the candidates thought about South Carolina flying the Confederate battle flag over its capitol building. As eventual runner-up Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would later recall, "No issue in the 2000 election seemed to evoke as much passion among South Carolinians as the public display of Dixie's rebel banner."

McCain had two excellent reasons to remember the issue with some vividness. South Carolina is where his insurgent candidacy came to an abrupt and unpleasant end, and his panicky flip-flopping on the flag issue throughout went down as one of the single biggest embarrassments of his long public life.

McCain's flag-zagging took place over the course of just two days.

Jan. 9, 2000:

The Confederate flag is offensive in many, many ways, as we all know. It's a symbol of racism and slavery. But I also understand how others do not view it in that fashion.

My forbearers from Mississippi fought under the Confederate flag. They were not slave owners, and I'm sure they considered their service—one I believe died in Shiloh—was honorable. So, I obviously understand why many Americans find it offensive.

Jan. 10, 2000:

Some people may have misinterpreted a previous statement by me regarding the Confederate flag. I was merely restating a position I have taken dozens of times in the past.

The question of where the Confederate flag should fly in South Carolina should be left up to the people of South Carolina to decide without outside interference.

In Arizona, we resented it when outsiders parachuted in to tell us what to do about a Martin Luther King holiday, I am sure the people of South Carolina feel the same way about outsiders trying to impose their views.

As to how I view the flag, I understand both sides.

Some view it as a symbol of slavery; others view it as a symbol of heritage. Personally, I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage.

As McCain explained in his 2002 campaign memoir Worth the Fighting For, "[I]t could come down to lying or losing. I chose lying."

Yet still he lost—by 11 percentage points, in a notoriously dirty campaign that included rumors of McCain fathering an illegitimate black child. Two months after the drubbing, the aspirational Straight Talker, now out of the race, returned to Columbia to issue a mea culpa:  

"I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary," Mr. McCain said. "So I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth."

What a damning thing, that a serious candidate of a major political party would feel the need to lie in order to win the votes of people he believed to be clinging to a "symbol of racism." Happily, however, the story does not end there.

The next contested GOP primary came in 2008, and McCain was once again dogged by controversy over the Confederate battle flag (which had been removed from the state capitol building in July 2000). Only this time, he stuck to his principles, saying "I can't be more proud of the overwhelming majority of the people of this state who came together in taking that flag off the top of the Capitol."

McCain was not alone in this: Mitt Romney agreed, saying "that flag shouldn't be flown" and "that's not a flag I recognize." Fred Thompson, who was competitive in the state, said "for a great many Americans, it's a symbol of racism," and that he was "glad that people have made a decision not to display it as a prominent flag symbolic of something in a state capitol." Only Mike Huckabee among the upper tier candidates defended the flag, snorting:

You don't like people from outside the state coming in and telling you what to do with your flag. In fact, if somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we'd tell 'em what to do with the pole; that's what we'd do.

The final primary vote in South Carolina: McCain 33%, Huckabee 30%, Thompson 16%, Romney 15%. Anti-flaggers received more than double the pro-flag vote.

By 2012, the Confederate battle flag had mostly receded as a GOP presidential primary issue. A January 2012 pre-primary South Carolina debate—on MLK Day, no less—did not include the words "confederate" or "flag" (though obviously the issue of race in America is not limited to just two discrete search terms).

Now that Dylann Roof's deadly attempt at igniting race war is dominating the news, does that mean flag politics will make a comeback? Maybe. Lower-tier candidate Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina said today the flag "works" and "is part of who we are," though he also acknowledged that "to others it is a racist symbol, and it has been used in a racist way." Rick Perry, who backed the Texas rejection of Confederate-flag license plates, said it's a state matter, but that "I agree that we need to be looking at these issues as ways to bring the country together….And if these are issues that are pushing us apart, then maybe there's a good conversation that needs to be had about [it]." Jeb Bush ordered the Confederate battle flag be taken down from Florida's capitol building back in 2001. I'm sure we'll be hearing more from other candidates over the coming days.

Mostly, though, it seems that the issue is being grappled with where it needs to be: within South Carolina itself. Palmetto State Gov. Nikki Haley, an Indian American Republican who has always downplayed the significance of the issue, said today "I think the state will start talking about that again, and we'll see where it goes." You should never say never in politics, but it's hard to imagine a major-party candidate for president this time around attempting to ingratiate himself with South Carolina voters by lying about his own distaste for the Confederate flag.