Running for political cover in the wake of Charleston church shooting

As the world reels from a racially-motivated, deadly attack on a church in South Carolina, presidential candidates try to navigate through tough issues involving race, religion, guns, and the Confederate flag.

David Goldman/REUTERS
Rev. Norvel Goff prays at the empty seat of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Sunday. Rev. Pinckney was one of nine people killed at the church in an apparent racial attack.

Race, religion, guns, and the Confederate flag. It’s a political combination with high potential for tripping up politicians, especially those aspiring to higher office.

And so we see those eyeing the presidency in 2016 – especially Republicans – positioning themselves in a way that credibly acknowledges the horror of this past week’s mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, without offending key elements of their political base.

This is not a cynical observation. It’s the nature of politics, but it’s also understandable as all Americans try to make sense of the senseless. Sometimes it’s best to just say little in the face of such highly-charged tragedy that can be said to find its roots in what has been called “America’s original sin,” that is, slavery.

But elected officials seldom get the chance to just stay quiet. Reporters will always want to know what they think, looking for answers, probing for gaffes. “I don’t know” or “I’ll have to think about that” seldom satisfies.

Back in 2000, Sen. John McCain was in a tough battle with George W. Bush in the South Carolina primary election. Reporters pushed him on whether the Confederate flag – the one his ancestors had fought for in the Civil War – should be removed from the state capitol.

He said that while the flag was a ''symbol of racism and slavery'' it was also a ''symbol of heritage,'' and its placement or removal should be left to the people of South Carolina. It wasn’t a truthful answer, he later acknowledged.

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

Today, the question about a flag is set in the context of Charleston and the Emanuel AME Church, holding services today for the first time since a young white man allegedly gunned down nine black people who had welcomed him to their Bible study and prayer gathering … and whose family members – astonishingly, to many – said they forgive him.

For the most part, GOP presidential candidates are taking the line Sen. McCain did before he “answered honestly.”

In a statement to The Associated Press, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said the last thing the people of South Carolina need is "people from outside of the state coming in and dictating how they should resolve it.” He said he understands that some people see the flag as a symbol of "racial oppression and a history of slavery," but that there are also "those who want to remember the sacrifices of their ancestors and the traditions of their states – not the racial oppression, but the historical traditions."

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said, "I think they're going to have a good, healthy debate – and should have a healthy debate in South Carolina amongst officials at the state level.”

"My opinion is that we should let the people of South Carolina go through the process of making this decision," Rick Santorum said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." Mike Huckabee said essentially the same thing on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich went farther, saying it's ultimately "up to the people of South Carolina to decide, but if I were a citizen of South Carolina I'd be for taking it down."

Jeb Bush appeared to take this line as well, telling the AP in a statement, "Following a period of mourning there will rightly be a discussion among leaders in the state about how South Carolina should move forward, and I'm confident they will do the right thing." Bush noted that when he was governor of Florida in 2001, the Confederate flag was moved from the state grounds “to a museum where it belonged.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Ben Carson – the lone African-American among Republican presidential candidates – took the hardest line on the Charleston tragedy. “If we don’t pay close attention to the hatred and division in our nation, it is just a harbinger of what we can expect,” he said

Race and racism are difficult subjects for the GOP, still struggling to construct a “big tent” party attractive to all Americans. Initially, at least, some prominent party members – including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal – characterized the massacre on Emanuel AME Church as primarily an attack on religion. The online manifesto of alleged shooter Dylann Roof – filled with racist comment as well as photos of him with the Confederate flag, but no mention of religion – quickly corrected that notion.

As Ed Morrissey notes at Hot Air, this has come up in every presidential cycle since at least 2000.

“That’s due in large part to South Carolina’s status as an early primary state, and its impact is entirely on the Republican field,” Morrissey writes. “It puts GOP candidates in a theoretically tough position of either pandering to fans of the flag or writing off South Carolina in the primaries. It puts Republicans at a stark disadvantage, all over a flag which stood for rebellion and disunity, whose purpose ended 150 years ago – and the attachment to it should have ended at the same time.

As the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, Mitt Romney was criticized by South Carolina’s GOP leaders for saying the Confederate flag should be removed from the state’s capitol grounds. With nothing to lose, Mr. Romney did it again after last week’s church attack.

“Take down the #ConfederateFlag at the SC Capitol,” he tweeted. “To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims.”
  “Good point, Mitt,” President Obama tweeted in response.

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