As the South Carolina Legislature decides whether to follow the lead of Gov. Nikki Haley and take down from the Capitol grounds the Confederate battle flag, it’s instructive to consider the way Republican candidates for president addressed the matter. At least two of them did not cover themselves with glory.

Asked about the controversy that got new life after a white supremacist shooter who revered the flag killed several people in a Charleston church, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said it was not a national issue, that is should be handled by the state, and that it was not part of the presidential campaign. Really, he said that.

Not to be outdone in the weasel-words department, former Arkansas governor and talk show host Mike Huckabee pretty much took Santorum’s line and added that reporters shouldn’t even be asking the question. Not a national matter, he suggested. Really, he said that.

Not a national matter? Not a topic for the presidential primary campaigns? What a crock. Since when are race and racism off the national agenda? Since when is the hateful message embodied in the Stars and Bars not part of the national conversation? Since when is it off-limits to consider the violence caused and beliefs held by haters who wrap themselves in that flag?

Santorum and Huckabee, the keepers of sanctimony on the campaign trail, should be ashamed of themselves for what was pure pander to white voters who will be voting soon in South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary. No profiles in courage there.

Not all Republican candidates, past and present, took the low road.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said his actions were clear. As governor, he’d had the Confederate flag removed from state property and relegated it to a museum. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, knowing he was infuriating a segment of his political base, said the flag should come down. Former Massachusetts governor and 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney was as clear as day when he said the flag was a racist symbol and should be removed. Republican national chairmen, past and present, one black, one white, said the flag had to go.

So despite the mealy-mouthed rhetorical shuffles from Santorum and Huckabee, several Republican presidential candidates, knowing it could hurt them politically, did the right thing. They not only recognized that the Confederate battle flag represents history and oppression not to be celebrated, they also embraced its role in what has to be an ongoing national discussion.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.

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