It's the capture-the-flag you never saw coming.
In a shrewdly mapped play, South Carolina Gov. Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyUS rejoins UN Human Rights Council, reversing Trump exit Smarkets betting site makes Trump favorite in 2024 Nikki Haley gets lifetime post on Clemson Board of Trustees MORE's (R) call to remove the flapping Confederate rebel jack from state capitol grounds suddenly prompted an entire party to reverse course on the issue. And after years of happily whistling political Dixie as part of its mad racial plan for Southern domination, the Republican Party backed away from this in an unprecedentedly humble about face. If presidential hopeful and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was calling it a non-issue on Sunday, there's now a good chance he might find a convenient backtrack moment by week's end.
The zeitgeist could hardly contain its excitement. Social media blew up into a hashtagging mess of victory laps. The ground-bolted flag, mind you, is still flapping, with no formal agreement or timeline (yet) of its final demise. Still, as historically hardheaded as South Carolina is (defiant and anti-federalist since national birth), the assumption is that the simple act of public contrition from state Republican leaders is in and of itself a remarkable feat.
But don't let hastily announced pressers and momentary Kumbaya in the wake of last week's horrific Charleston, S.C. terrorist attack fool you. Guided by Haley's gifted political hand, Republicans just pulled one of the most clever optical okey-dokeys in recent memory, capturing the flag, running across the field and waving it — in our collective face. Here are five reasons why it's not all what it seems:
Keep talking about flags, so long as you're not talking about guns. Philosophy professor and gun policy expert Firmin Debrabander threw a heavy dose of skepticism on the flag talk as we discussed it during a recent radio conversation on Baltimore-based WYPR-FM: The more we keep focus on the rebel flag, the less we're talking about gun control, just as the National Rifle Association (NRA) wants. Hence, Haley may have just engineered a spectacular solid for one of her more ardent political supporters. More talk about the rebel jack, conveniently stretching its shelf life on the news cycle, keeps the spotlight off gun control. And that's what Haley, state Republican leaders and the gun lobby want: In February, Haley signed a bill into law authorizing concealed guns in restaurants and bars and had the state Senate passed it, she was ready to sign a "permitless" concealed carry law.
Democrats just lost a cause. Real talk: Democrats hoped this was an issue they'd be riding way into 2016, a way to galvanize traditionally reliable, yet reticent African-American voters who are showing signs of displeasure with their current picks. There are signs that black voters aren't completely feeling early-presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, along with some disappointed in President Obama and others tapping out if he's not prominently displayed on the campaign trail. Plus, Democrats are too scared to talk boldly on issues like #BlackLivesMatter or poverty out of fear they'll alienate white voters. Along comes an easy lift issue for Democrats — or so they thought. And, perhaps, the issue could have leveraged South Carolina's black electorate, which represents about 30 percent of the state's voting population. But Republicans appear to have hijacked it before Democrats could get any sail from that wind, whether folks whine about it not coming down fast enough or not.
Everything stays the same, especially for black South Carolinians. It's not like taking the flag down dramatically changes anything for blacks in the Palmetto State. And folks can still wave it on private property if they want. The Republican governor and the GOP-dominated state legislature are still politically unfriendly to a community that's nearly 30 percent of the population. The state still boasts a voter ID law. While the Economic Policy Institute shows South Carolina has the second-lowest black unemployment rate in the nation, it's still rather high at 8.7 percent, compared to only 5.3 percent for whites. The state's poverty rate is ninth in the nation, and the black poverty rate is outrageous at 28 percent. Taking the flag down doesn't move the political or economic needle for blacks in South Carolina one bit.
Well, there goes state culpability. Not sure what the Charleston shooting victims' families or Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church had planned legally, but filing a civil suit against the state of South Carolina could have sent a powerful national message. Clearly, shooter Dylann Roof had an agenda, and the persistent state-sanctioned presence of a treasonous flag on state government grounds was one of several top motivating factors. Maybe it's a stretch (I'm not a lawyer), but South Carolina could be liable on a number of levels. This latest move diminishes that as a legal strategy.
It's all about Haley. This was some very smart, very intelligent and very long-term strategic maneuvering on the part of South Carolina's governor, a move that may have just secured her a new political life and a fresh national stage. She's still very popular. In terms of image, she's suddenly transformed herself into Republican Wonder Woman of color, who took a stand against racism even though the GOP hates talking about it. Since she finds a messaging foil against gun control, the NRA will scratch her back the same way she scratched theirs. The brilliance of the strategy puts her on the radar as a rather attractive running mate for 2016 or for her own presidential aspirations in 2020 if Republican hopes are dashed next year. Should the state's senior U.S. Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamRepublicans' mantra should have been 'Stop the Spread' Senators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention MORE (R) snag a Cabinet slot if Republicans retake the White House (because, let's face it, he's not winning the nomination), Haley could get an early lift to Washington — or she could either take Graham on or fill his seat if he fades out several years from now.
Ellison is a veteran political strategist and contributing editor for The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune, chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine, Sunday Washington insider for WDAS-FM (Philadephia) and a panelist on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews." Follow him on Twitter @ellisonreport.