Confederate flag: Where the 2016 candidates stand

Dylan Stableford
·Senior Writer
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The South Carolina and U.S. flags are seen flying at half-staff behind the Confederate flag, which is erected at a war memorial on the state Capitol grounds. (Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week’s mass shooting in Charleston, S.C. — where nine black people were killed inside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a white gunman in what investigators are treating as a hate crime — has reignited a debate over the Confederate flag, which flies atop a 30-foot flagpole outside the state Capitol building in Columbia.

Police say that when he was captured, the suspected shooter, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, was driving a car that had an image of the Confederate flag emblazoned on its license plate. And photos of Roof waving the flag have surfaced since his arrest.

South Carolina was the last state to fly the Confederate flag above its Statehouse. In 2000, lawmakers agreed to move it from the Statehouse dome to a Confederate war memorial on the Statehouse grounds.

Following last week’s shootings, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley ordered the state flags to be flown at half-staff following the massacre. But the Confederate flag had still not been moved.

“In South Carolina, the governor does not have legal authority to alter the flag,” a Haley spokesman explained to ABC News. “Only the General Assembly can do that.”

On Saturday, hundreds of protesters rallied outside the Capitol in Columbia calling for the flag to be taken down. And former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney joined the chorus.

“To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred,” Romney wrote on Twitter. “Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims.”

It’s one issue Romney and President Barack Obama, who defeated the former Massachussetts governor in the 2012 presidential election, can agree on.

“Good point, Mitt,” Obama wrote on Twitter, retweeting Romney.

“The president has said before he believes the Confederate flag belongs in a museum,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Friday. “That is still his position.”

So we know where the 2012 presidential nominees stand on the issue of the Confederate flag. But what about the crop of current and possible 2016 presidential candidates?

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Bush leaves a backyard meet and greet in Washington, Iowa, on Wednesday. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Jeb Bush, former Florida governor

•  Position on the Confederate flag: Take it down.

In 2001, then-Gov. Bush ordered the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of Florida’s historic Old Capitol building.

“My position on how to address the Confederate flag is clear,” Bush said in a statement Saturday. “In Florida, we acted, moving the flag from the state grounds to a museum, where it belonged.”

Bush acknowledged it is a “very sensitive time” in the wake of the killings but said the flag should eventually be taken down.

“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.”

It’s not the first time a presidential contender from the Bush family has had to address this issue.

During the 2000 presidential primary, both George W. Bush, Jeb Bush’s brother, and Arizona Sen. John McCain maintained it should be up to South Carolina to decide the issue. McCain, who said he believed it was an offensive symbol that should be removed, later admitted he compromised his principles in order to score political points.

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

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Rubio addresses the “Road to Majority” conference in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. (Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio

•  Position on the Confederate flag: Supported 2001 decision to take the flag down in Florida.

Rubio says he supported Bush’s 2001 decision to move Florida’s confederate flag from the state Capitol to a museum. But the Florida senator stopped short of recommending South Carolina do the same.

“I think ultimately the people of South Carolina will make the right decision for South Carolina,” Rubio told Politico. “And I believe in their capacity to make that decision.”

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Walker speaks at the Road to Majority 2015 convention Saturday in Washington. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (expected to run)

•  Position on the Confederate flag: Let the state decide.

Walker welcomed a “healthy debate” over the flag, but declined to disclose his personal views on the issue.

“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,” Walker told reporters after a speech Saturday night in Washington. “I think out of deference, before we have that discussion, we should allow the families of the loved ones to bury their dead.”

Walker, who is expected to formally announce his candidacy for the 2016 Republican nomination next month, clarified his position in a statement.

“The placement of a Confederate flag on the Capitol grounds is a state issue, and I fully expect the leaders of South Carolina to debate this,“ he said, "but the conversation should wait until after the families have had a chance to bury and mourn their loved ones.”

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Graham speaks at a campaign stop at a VFW hall in Waterloo, Iowa. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham

•  Position on the Confederate flag: Let the state decide.

On Friday, Graham said the flag "is part of who we are.”

“The flag represents to some people a civil war,” Graham said on CNN. “To others it’s a racist symbol, and it’s been used by people in a racist way.”

The South Carolina senator and 2016 Republican hopeful said he would welcome revisiting the state’s decision to display the flag outside the Capitol, but for now, “it works here.”

“You could probably visit other places in the country near some symbol that doesn’t quite strike you right,” Graham said.

Graham said the debate over the flag in the wake of the shootings misses the point: The gunman — not the flag — is to blame.

“We’re not going to give this a guy an excuse about a book he might have read or a movie he watched or a song he listened to or a symbol out anywhere,” Graham said. “It’s not the book, it’s not the movie, it’s not the flags — it’s him.”

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Cruz speaks during a “Celebrate the 2nd Amendment Event” Saturday in Johnston, Iowa. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz

•  Position on the Confederate flag: Let the state decide.

The last thing the people of South Carolina need, Cruz said in a statement to the Associated Press, is “people from outside of the state coming in and dictating how they should resolve it.”

Like Graham, Cruz said he understands those who see the flag as a symbol of “racial oppression and a history of slavery” and “those who want to remember the sacrifices of their ancestors and the traditions of their states — not the racial oppression but the historical traditions.”

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Huckabee speaks during a “Roast & Ride” campaign event in Boone, Iowa. (Photo: Dave Kaup/Reuters)

Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor

•  Position on the Confederate flag: Let the state decide.

Given the chance to weigh in Sunday, Huckabee largely ducked the question, saying it shouldn’t be a campaign issue.

“I still feel like it’s not an issue for a person running for president,“ Huckabee said on NBC’s "Meet the Press.” “For those of us running for president, everyone’s being baited with this question as if somehow that has anything to do whatsoever with running for president. And my position is it most certainly does not.

"People want their president to be focused on the economy, keeping America safe, some really big issues for the nation,” he continued. “I don’t think they want us to weigh in on every little issue in all 50 states that might be an important issue to the people of those states but it’s not on the desk of the president.”

Huckabee added: “I don’t personally display it anywhere, so it’s not an issue for me. And so that’s an issue for the people of South Carolina.”

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Santorum speaks in Washington, D.C., on Friday. (Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Rick Santorum, former Pennsylvania senator

•  Position on the Confederate flag: Leave it up to the state to decide.

“I take the position that the federal government really has no role in determining what the states are going to do,” Santorum said on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday. “I’m not a South Carolinian, and I think this is a decision … that should be made by the people. You know, I don’t think the federal government or federal candidates should be making decisions on everything and opining on everything.  This is a decision that needs to be made here in South Carolina.

"Like everybody else, I have my opinion,” Santorum continued. “I think the opinion of people here in South Carolina and having them work through this difficulty is much more important than politicizing it.”

When asked what his opinion was, Santorum sidestepped the issue.

"My opinion is that we should let the people of South Carolina go through the process of making this decision,” he said.

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Carson bows his head in prayer before addressing the “Road to Majority” conference in Washington, D.C., Friday. (Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon

• Position on the Confederate flag: Let the state decide.

On Sunday, Carson said the removal of the flag won’t prevent future tragedies but acknowledged it’s an “inflammatory” symbol for a lot of people.

“The Confederate flag causes a lot of people angst, and they are not able to see beyond that,” Carson, the only African-American candidate in the 2016 presidential race, said on Fox News. “I think the people of South Carolina should sit down and have an intelligent discussion about what can they use that captures their heritage, captures the heritage of America and allows them to coexist in peace.”

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Fiorina addresses the “Road to Majority” conference in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. (Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard chief executive

•  Position on the confederate flag: Sees it as a “symbol of racial hatred.”

Fiorina said Saturday she agrees the flag is a “symbol of racial hatred” but did not join those calling for its removal.

“Personal opinion is not what’s relevant here,” Fiorina said, according to the Associated Press.

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Kasich addresses the “Road to Majority” conference in Washington, D.C., on Friday. (Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (expected to run)

•  Position on the Confederate flag: Let the state decide, but would vote to take it down.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich said while it’s ultimately “up to the people of South Carolina to decide,” he knows how he’d vote.

“If I were a citizen of South Carolina I’d be for taking it down,” Kasich said.

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Clinton addresses the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting in San Francisco, on Saturday. (Photo: Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state

•  Position on the Confederate flag: Supported its removal in 2007.

Clinton has not publicly addressed the issue of the flag since last week’s shooting.

But in 2007 she called for the flag’s removal, in part because the nation should unite under one banner while at war.

The former secretary of state did, however, address the kind of deep-seated racism laid bare by the church massacre.

"America’s long struggle with race is far from finished,” Clinton said Saturday in an emotional speech in San Francisco during a conference of U.S. mayors. “I know this is a difficult topic to talk about. I know that so many of us hoped by electing our first black president we had turned the page on this chapter in our history. I know there are truths we don’t like to say out loud in discussions with our children, but we have to. That is the only way we can possibly move forward together.”

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Sanders speaks to supporters during an open house at his Iowa campaign headquarters in Des Moines earlier this month. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders

•  Position on the Confederate flag: Take it down.

On Monday, Sanders called on South Carolina to remove the flag from the Statehouse grounds.

“The flag is a relic of our nation’s stained racial history. It should come down,” Sanders said. “The tragedy in Charleston, as terrible as it is, has given the people of South Carolina an opportunity to finally turn a page on our past. The flag belongs in a museum.”

A day after the massacre, Sanders postponed a planned weekend trip to Charleston, urging his supporters to make a donation to the church.

“The Charleston church killings are a tragic reminder of the ugly stain of racism that still taints our nation,“ Sanders said in a statement on Capitol Hill. "This senseless violence fills me and I believe all Americans with outrage, with disgust and a deep, deep sadness. The hateful killing of nine people who were praying inside a church is a horrific reminder that, while we have made significant progress in advancing civil rights in this country, we are far from eradicating racism.”

Yet to weigh in on the flag issue: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; former Texas Gov. Rick Perry; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson; former New York Gov. George Pataki; Donald Trump; former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee.

They may be forced to do so soon.  An online petition to remove the flag launched in the wake of the massacre has already amassed more than 400,000 signatures.

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