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Nikki Haley Is Not a Hero. She's Just Doing Damage Control for Republicans.


The Confederate flag flying at the State Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina, has been a matter of controversy for much longer than Nikki Haley’s four and a half years as the state’s governor. Her newfound determination to seek its removal, amid the public clamor after a neoconfederate gunned down nine people at a historic black church in Charleston last week, has been applauded in the political media as an act of courage and a coup for her professional prospects.

None of these interpretations is correct. The correct interpretation came from Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston.

Haley’s change of heart wasn’t the result of a moral epiphany, or even really an admission that the people who’ve been seeking the flag’s removal for years were right all along.

It was undertaken largely as an act of damage control on behalf of Republican presidential primary candidates who were so frozen in terror at the thought of risking South Carolina’s pro-Confederacy vote that they couldn’t articulate whether they believed the flag should come down or not. Haley needed to cut a path along which they could escape further damage, but she did so grudgingly, and expressed something close to bewilderment at those who found the flag abhorrent well before the Emanuel AME shooting made it a sorer spot than usual.

“To those outside of our state, the flag may be nothing more than a symbol of the worst of America’s past,” Haley said. “That is not what it is to many South Carolinians.”

Her decision to aggressively seek its removal is the right one, but it’s been the right one all along, and it shouldn’t have taken a racist massacre at a black church by a local neoconfederate to awaken her to that conclusion. If this makes her likelier to be a vice presidential nominee than she was before, it’s only because whoever wins the presidential nomination will appreciate her intervention as an act of mercy. But she will still be the governor of one of the most conservative states in the country, with all the baggage that entails. In her speech on Monday she defended Confederate flag flyers as people who “honor ancestors who came to the service of their state during time of conflict.”

“The hate-filled murderer who massacred our brothers and sisters in Charleston has a sick and twisted view of the flag,” Haley added. This might be a necessary palliative for whites in South Carolina, but that doesn't make it great ticket-balancing material.

It shouldn’t have taken Dylann Storm Roof’s heinous crime to make Republicans come to terms with the wrongness of the display on the State Capitol grounds, and it shouldn’t be the case that a mass-murdering segregationist has a clearer grasp of the Confederate flag’s meaning than the governor of South Carolina.

This article has been updated.