South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley yesterday called for her state’s legislature to finally remove the Confederate flag from Capitol grounds. In my mind, this was as close to a gimme as they come. The only problem with Haley’s call is that it gives presidential candidates an easy out from answering tough questions they’ve been flubbing for the last five days.
Prior to Haley’s announcement, Jeb Bush claimed that the Confederate flag issue was best left to the leaders of South Carolina to figure out. Ted Cruz said that the last thing South Carolina needed was “people from outside the state coming in and dictating how they should resolve it.” Marco Rubio wanted the state to “make the right choice for the people of South Carolina.” And so on and so on. They were buying themselves time in the hope that local politicians would bail them out. Mission accomplished.
The fact that these candidates were equivocating on this issue at all speaks to politics over leadership, particularly on an issue as damaging as the Confederate flag flying on top of government buildings in 2015. I understand why they were trying so hard not to say anything substantive—a 2014 Winthrop University poll found that 61 percent of South Carolina residents believed the confederate flag should still fly on state house grounds. 73 percent of whites polled said it should stay, and a downright shocking 27 percent of black respondents agree.
But this is a level of nuance that the American people, and the residents of South Carolina, are allowed to have. Candidates running for president don’t get the same latitude. And with Haley’s announcement, they were given an easy out. They should have long ago ignored what the polls were saying and told us directly whether they believed the flag should continue to fly and why. Now they’ll never have to, claiming they were vindicated in allowing the state of South Carolina to make the “right” decision for themselves. These candidates should have acknowledged outright that the Confederate flag is a clear symbol of racism and hatred, the same type of racism that claimed the lives of those 9 people in the church.
Bremmer is a foreign affairs columnist and editor-at-large at TIME. He is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy, and a Global Research Professor at New York University. His most recent book is Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World