GOP’s cowardly Confederate flag move perfectly crystallizes their Donald Trump problem on race

Southern Republicans made a last ditch attempt to save the flag. Boehner scrambled to avoid the shame of a vote

Published July 10, 2015 6:00PM (EDT)

John Boehner                                      (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
John Boehner (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

On Thursday, GOP House Speaker John Boehner failed to accomplish what Republican South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley did: he couldn’t rally his caucus behind a bipartisan decision to take down the Confederate flag, in this case from federal property.

How did it end that way, when earlier this week Boehner seemed to be playing the statesman? He told reporters he supported the flag’s removal, and Tuesday night House Democrats introduced an amendment to a spending bill that would take down the flag from federal property and ban its sale or display at national parks or cemeteries, which passed unanimously. When white Southern GOP members belatedly figured out what happened, as is often the case, they rebelled. Then Boehner, unbelievably, canceled a vote on the appropriations bill that contained the flag provision. "I do not want this to become some political football,” he declared.

And party leaders wonder why they have a Donald Trump-sized problem with race.

Once Southern members figured out what happened, Rep. Ken Calvert offered an amendment to allow the flag to be displayed at federal cemeteries and sold in gift shops. Boehner managed to table that when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi outplayed him, introducing a privileged resolution instructing the speaker to “remove any State flag containing any portion of the Confederate battle flag, other than a flag displayed by the office of a Member of the House, from any area within the House wing of the Capitol or any House office building, and shall donate any such flag to the Library of Congress."

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy pushed to table that, too, by sending it to committee, and he was backed by every Republican member but one, Rep. Curt Clawson of Florida.

Pelosi blasted House leadership for trying to avoid political exposure: the sight of Republican members voting to protect the flag on the same day South Carolina decided to take it down. “They were more afraid of what those 100 members of Congress might come to the floor and say in defense of the Calvert amendment," she said.

And that’s exactly what happened. Boehner presumably had the votes to defeat the Calvert amendment (if not pass Pelosi's), since the entire Democratic caucus would have backed it. Still, he couldn’t completely spare his party the embarrassment it deserves. Southern members were happy to talk to reporters about why they wanted the flag preserved at national cemeteries.

“When you’re putting a flag on someone’s grave, to me it’s a little different from being racist. It’s more of a memorial,” Georgia’s Lynn Westmoreland told the New York Times. “You can’t make an excuse for things that happened, but the majority of people that actually died in the Civil War on the Confederate side did not own slaves. These were people that were fighting for their states. I don’t think they had even any thoughts about slavery.”

Of course that’s exactly the mendacious Civil War revisionism the anti-flag movement seeks to refute. When a Times reporter asked if Westmoreland could see the perspective of Georgia civil rights hero, Rep. John Lewis, the self-pitying Republican answered, unbelievably, “I guess the question is, ‘Does he understand where I’m coming from?’”

Lewis had his skull fractured on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge marching for voting rights 50 years ago, but Westmoreland is the one who deserves understanding? What a disgrace.

House Democrats like Lewis made sure the country knows what’s at stake with the flag. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries was widely shown making the passionate case against it. “What exactly is the tradition the Confederate battle flag is meant to represent?” he asked on the House floor. “Is it slavery, rape, kidnapping, genocide, treason, or all of the above?”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest saw the shameful event as just another example of the House GOP’s attempt to harness racial resentment for political gain. "These are the same House Republicans who voted for a party leader who once described himself as 'David Duke without the baggage,' he said, talking about House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. “These are the same congressional Republicans who have declined to criticize the race-baiting rhetoric of a leading Republican presidential candidate."

That’s why it’s hard not to enjoy the spectacle of the shameless Trump humiliating the GOP with his non-stop hateful rhetoric. Who couldn’t laugh at the way Trump got the upper hand on RNC chair Reince Priebus, after Priebus obviously leaked the details of a call he said he made asking Trump to stop his divisive comments about Mexicans? Trump, of course, claimed the chair called to “congratulate” him – and Priebus didn’t rush out and deny it.

But Trump might not have the power he does in the GOP if party leaders had repudiated him long ago – back when he began trafficking in the anti-Obama birtherism that animates so much of its base. The Times, perhaps belatedly, has discovered why the GOP has had trouble reining in Trump:

It turns out, interviews show, that the mathematical delicacy of a Republican victory in 2016 — and its dependence on aging, anxious white voters — make it exceedingly perilous for the Republican Party to treat Mr. Trump as the pariah many of its leaders now wish he would become.

Of course, the Times presents this insight as a new discovery, when “it turns out” many of us have been writing about this for at least three years now, going back to Mitt Romney’s shameful embrace of Trump in 2012. But better late than never that the Times say plainly what many of us already know: the GOP is in a demographic death spiral that requires it to pander to “aging, anxious white voters,” and that means it can’t fully repudiate either Trump or the Confederate flag.

By Joan Walsh