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National

Confederate Flag Controversy Raised Again After S.C. Church Shooting

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, Hansi mentioned a photo showing Dylann Roof holding a Confederate battle flag, which was carried by Southern troops during the Civil War and which still flies on the grounds of the South Carolina state capital. Its advocates say that flag honors Confederate war debt. Its critics see the flag as a symbol of white supremacy, which seems to be the way that Dylann Roof displayed it. Many, including President Obama and Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley, are calling for that flag to be removed from the grounds of the capital, put in a museum. On the Republican side, responses to the issue have been complex.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Should the Confederate flag still fly in South Carolina or anywhere else in the United States?

GOV/PRES CAND BOBBY JINDAL: Look, we'll let the states decide that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEN/PRES CAND LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, at the end of the day, it's time for people in South Carolina to - to revisit that decision would be fine with me. But this is part of who we are.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRES CAND RICK SANTORUM: My opinion is that we should let the people of South Carolina go through the process of making this decision.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRES CAND MIKE HUCKABEE: I still feel like it's not an issue for a person running for president.

INSKEEP: Those were some of the 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls - Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. We're going to talk about this now with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do you hear in those comments?

LIASSON: What I hear is Republicans who are looking ahead to next year's South Carolina primary, where there will be a lot of white Republican voters who view the fight over the flag as a symbol of the infringement of the federal government on the rights of states. But at the same time, I hear Republicans who do not want to appear intolerant. And by the way, the Confederate flag is still flying at full-staff outside the capital in Columbia, while the U.S. flag and the state flag are at half-staff. And that's because that is the law in South Carolina. The Confederate flag can only be lowered through an act of the legislature. But what's really interesting here is there is a debate inside the GOP. Some leading Republicans are coming out in favor of taking down the flag. Last week, Mitt Romney tweeted, he said, take down the Confederate flag. To many, it's a symbol of racial hatred. And Jeb Bush, who, of course, is a candidate for president, he said on Facebook, quote, "My position on how to address the Confederate flag is clear. In Florida, we moved the flag from the state grounds to a museum where it belonged."

INSKEEP: Well, what are the chances that South Carolina would do that?

LIASSON: Well, I think if there's a groundswell of public opinion to put it in a museum, that will happen. Gov. Nikki Haley has said there will be a renewed discussion of this. Last fall when the flag came up during her governor's race, she said she hadn't heard anything from CEOs and the business community about the flag. That might change. And when the business community weighs in, as it did recently in laws around gay rights and same-sex marriages, things can change pretty fast. The other important voice here is South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. He's the only African-American Republican in the Senate. And when he weighs in, as he has said he will, it will have a very big impact.

INSKEEP: Well, there's another question here and that's what people will do, if anything, about gun control. President Obama made a statement in which he sounded like he was in favor of more gun control measures but also sounded rather hopeless about the prospect of passing any. Are Democrats actually going to try anything?

LIASSON: Well, we haven't heard anything specific about what they might present. But the president, as you know, failed to pass stricter background checks in the wake of the Newtown massacre, where 20 school kids and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. And a lot of Democrats are saying if that couldn't move the Congress at that time - a Democratic Senate - why would the cold-blooded killing of nine African-American church members change one of the most intractable issues in the American political debate, especially because now we have the Senate in Republican hands. So I think you'd have to have a groundswell of public opinion. There isn't much else the president can do without legislation. He's already issued more than two dozen executive orders on gun violence.

INSKEEP: I guess we should mention the subject could also change rather quickly here because we're expecting Supreme Court rulings on different subjects.

LIASSON: We are. We're waiting for the two big decisions - same-sex marriage - will the court find a constitutional right to marriage equality? - and Obamacare - will people in states that didn't set up their own online exchanges be able to get subsidies? If the court rules that they can't, it could unravel the entire law. So the Supreme Court has until the end of June to issue those rulings, and they could come as early as today.

INSKEEP: OK, Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: A roundup of national political news from NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.