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20 Aug 2014
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Presidential Cop-Outs: No Guts, No Glory


If you think that running for president means taking tough stands on tough issues, you have never run for president.

As any presidential candidate can tell you, the real trick is to avoid taking tough stands on tough issues.

The easiest way to do this is to invoke the Great Cop-Out: "Let the states decide."

Gun control? "Let the states decide."

Gay marriage? "Let the states decide."

Civil rights? "Let the states decide."

Whoops, politicians aren't supposed to say that about civil rights anymore. But they sure used to.

The Great Cop-Out, which is now dressed up with the fancy name "federalism," was once called "states' rights." And states' rights was used to block civil rights legislation for decades. It was even used to block federal laws against lynching people, because that, too, was considered something the states were supposed to decide for themselves.

And while it is no longer fashionable to invoke states' rights to deny people their civil rights, the Great Cop-Out is still going strong.

Lamar Alexander, a Republican who ran for president in 2000, became known for three things: his checkered shirt, the exclamation point after his name on all his posters — Lamar! — and his core belief that political power should be returned to the states.

In one memorable presidential primary debate in Florida, Alexander said: "Why should people in Washington determine if your children can carry guns to school? That can be determined right here at the state level."

This shocked one of his Republican opponents, Phil Gramm, a conservative senator from Texas. Gramm was no great fan of gun control, but he thought Alexander's argument was dumb.

"Lamar, the point is we don't want our children to carry guns to school," Gramm said. "So who cares where they decide it?"

Alexander disagreed. Gun control, even restricting machine guns in kindergarten, was a matter each of the 50 states should determine for themselves.

I once asked Alexander if he favored each state controlling its own nuclear weapons, but he didn't answer, assuming, wrongly, that I was kidding.

Lamar Alexander is now the senior senator from Tennessee — or, in other words, a member of the power structure he once attacked.

But others invoke the Great Cop-Out for him.

Whether the Confederate battle flag should fly atop the state capitol in South Carolina became an issue in the presidential campaign of 2000. On the Democratic side, Al Gore and Bill Bradley opposed flying the flag.

On the Republican side, George W. Bush copped-out. "It's up to you," Bush told a group of students in Tigerville, S.C. "The state of South Carolina can make up its own mind."

John McCain, running against him, took both sides. He started out by saying the flag was a "symbol of racism and slavery." But his staff persuaded him to change his position, and so McCain then said the flag was a "symbol of heritage."

After he lost the South Carolina primary, McCain denounced his own flip-flop. "This was the greatest display of lack of personal courage, I think, in the campaign," he told me. "I'm sure I took other positions that were not particularly courageous, but that sort of was the least courageous."

In the 2008 campaign, the issue continues. And it continues to be about more than a flag.

Rudy Giuliani, who years ago praised those who were trying to get the Confederate flag removed, today says the issue should be decided by the states.

"We have different sensitivities, and at different times we are going to come to different decisions, and I think that is best left up to the states," he said about the Confederate flag last week in Alabama.

When I interviewed Giuliani recently on a campaign swing in South Carolina, he said: "A lot of the more intricate issues should get decided on a state-by-state basis. The federal government should stick to things it does well and leave a lot of the differences of opinion to the states."

Which is not exactly a profile in courage.

Last week, Steve Spurrier, the head football coach at the University of South Carolina, said: "We don't need the Confederate flag at our capitol. That's just my opinion. I'm not a politician."

Of course he is not a politician.

If he were a politician, he wouldn't have had the guts to say anything.

To find out more about Roger Simon and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at



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