Mike Huckabee’s Flag Flap

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As on most topics, Mike Huckabee can speak eloquently and movingly about the bedrock principle of racial equality. It usually comes up in his stump when he is talking about abortion, about how every life is equal, even those in the womb. He will compare this idea to the lesson America, and the south, learned during the Civil Rights movement. So it is a bit shocking, if not a little concerning, to see Huckabee so flagrantly playing the “states’ rights” card in the closing days before the South Carolina primary. It happened Thursday, at an appearance in Myrtle Beach, where unprompted by anyone, Huckabee brought up the Confederate Flag and started using the language of southern politicians who battled against the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

“You don’t like people from outside the state coming and telling you how you oughta raise your kids. You don’t like people coming from outside the state coming down and telling you what you want to do with your flag,” he said. “In fact, if someone came to the state of Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we’d tell them where to put the pole – that’s what we’d do.”

In a press conference Thursday night, Huckabee said he would not take a stand on whether or not South Carolina should fly the confederate flag, since it is not a federal issue. “That’s an issue that has no business for the president of the United States,” he said. (The flag no longer flies from the state house here, though it is displayed nearby. John McCain, Huckabee’s main rival here, has condemned the flag as a symbol of racism.)

When I asked Huckabee if he was consciously using the old states’ rights lingo, he pointedly declined to engage the issue. Instead, he talked about his experience in Arkansas. “We don’t want someone coming down and getting in a fight with us, if they are not a part of it,” he said. He did not speak of the issue again Friday, though his comments Thursday got plenty of earned media airplay.

He is content, it seems, to just leave his statement hanging out there. At the same time, a group called “Americans for the Preservation of American Culture” is running radio ads down here, attacking Mitt Romney and John McCain for criticizing the confederate flag. “After McCain, Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is a breath of fresh air,” the ad goes. “Mike Huckabee understands that all the average guy with a confederate flag on his pickup truck is saying is: He’s proud to be a southerner.”

That may well be the case, for the average southerner. But the flag, and the inflammatory rhetoric of states’ rights that Huckabee used, is also a symbol for racists–and it remains a painful symbol of injustice for many Americans. It is notable that Huckabee, just days before a tight election, seems to have lost his sensitivity to these facts.