Rick Perry’s Confederate Symbol Flip-Flop Is Gonna Be A Problem In South Carolina

Evan McMorris-Santoro
October 27, 2011

Rick Perry used to stand with those in his party who reject any idea that the Confederate flag is anything but a reminder of the South’s proud heritage. Yesterday he did an about-face, picking up the rhetoric used by Confederate flag opponents who call for its banishment from Southern state houses and license plates to the scrap heap of history.

The shift is not going to play well in the state that kicked off the Civil War War Between The States 150 years ago, South Carolina Republicans tell TPM.

At issue is a call in Texas for license plates that bear the stars and bars of the Confederate battle flag. After taking heat from Democrats for sidestepping the controversial proposal Perry commented on the suggested plates for the first time yesterday, and said he opposed them.

“We don’t need to be scraping old wounds,” he told a Florida TV station.

It’s that “old wounds” thing that’s going to be trouble in South Carolina, Republicans said. Here’s what Southern Republican politicians usually sound like when it comes to Confederate symbols.

“I believe that Texans should remember the past and learn from it.” That’s from a 2000 letter Perry wrote to the Sons Of Confederate Veterans during a debate over Confederate symbols in the Lone Star State. The letter, which was published by the AP Wednesday, goes on, “although this is an emotional issue, I want you to know that I oppose efforts to remove Confederate monuments, plaques, and memorials from public property.”

That’s the general move here for a Republican — tip your hat to the controversy about the flag, but stand behind it as a reminder of Southern history. Perry’s flip was that he embraced those who said the symbols are more about hurt than heritage.

“That sounds a lot like pandering to me,” South Carolina state Sen. Lee Bright (R) told TPM. He’s unaffiliated in the primary, but said he likes the way Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann “stick to principles.”

Bright’s very conservative, suggesting earlier this year that the Palmetto State consider minting its own currency to protect it from the collapsing dollar. But he said that when it comes to the Confederate flag, he’s in the Republican mainstream in his state.

“I don’t think anybody who attacks the Confederate flag in the South is helping themselves,” Bright said. “Instead of answering the question, Perry should have said, ‘why are we talking about this with 10% unemployment?’”

Bright suggested the issue could cut into a core of Perry’s message — the professed fealty to 10th Amendment he’s been hanging his hat on since he suggested Texas split off from the Union once again. Bright said the new line on the Confederate flag suggests Perry doesn’t get why many in the South still whistle Dixie.

“As long as the federal government usurps power from the states, you’re going to have Southerners who look fondly upon the time when men took a stand,” Bright said. He said candidates “besmirch those men” at their peril.

Also, Bright offered up the oft-repeated arguments from Confederate flag supporters about how the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery and that none who support the flag today think slavery was a good idea. It’s an old fight below the Mason-Dixon line.

But Bright wasn’t the only South Carolinian to say Perry’s in trouble now that he’s flipped on Confederate symbols. One unaffiliated Republican operative, who declined to speak on the record because of the divisive nature of the issue, also said Perry just dug himself a hole.

“For some people, the wound is still very raw from ‘The War Of Northern Aggression,’” the operative said. “[Perry’s] statement is probably dangerous.”

The Confederate battle flag still flies at the South Carolina state House. And many voters in the state are still fired up by accusations that embracing the symbol is racist, the operative said. And so the new take may come back to haunt Perry as the Palmetto primary draws near.

“A smart candidate might make an issue of it,” the operative said.

© 2011 TPM Media LLC

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