Republican candidates struggle with Civil War history as party grapples with race issues in present

WASHINGTON (AP) — As Republicans make their case for the future, they keep getting stuck on the past.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spent much of the summer mired in controversy over new educational standards that call for teaching that slaves developed skills that “could be applied for their personal benefit.” Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley failed last month to mention slavery as the root cause of the Civil War. And former President Donald Trump last weekend called the Civil War “so fascinating” and said it could have been “negotiated,” sidestepping the fundamental dilemma of slavery.

Such moments reflect tension inside the GOP — the Party of Lincoln that abolished slavery, won the Civil War and embarked on Reconstruction — with the first primaries of the 2024 election just around the corner. Some in the party’s conservative base, which is deeply rooted in the Deep South, are more willing to overlook unpleasant historical facts about the Civil War at a time when they feel under siege from the left during the movement to remove Confederate monuments and names from institutions. Others fear the controversy will hurt the party’s ambitions to make inroads with nonwhite voters who may be repelled by minimizing the historical atrocity of slavery.

On the eve of Monday’s Iowa caucuses, Republicans are increasingly frustrated by the dynamic and have sought to turn the issue back on Democrats.

“Quite frankly, I’m getting damn tired of the re−interpretation of history that I hear from Democrats,” Iowa Republican Party chair Jeff Kaufmann said at the state party’s annual legislative breakfast Tuesday. "The Republican Party emerged because Democrats would not give on slavery.”

The prominent role slavery and the Civil War have played in the GOP primary is notable at a time when the next president faces immediate challenges, including two major wars and a domestic economic recovery many voters say they’re not feeling. Some fear the party risks losing the chance to make inroads into President Joe Biden’s support, especially as Arab American, Black and Latino leaders are increasingly vocal that the president is vulnerable among voters of color.

Biden and his fellow Democrats are eager to highlight the GOP missteps. Speaking Monday at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine Black parishioners were killed by a white supremacist in 2015, Biden said it was a “lie” that the Civil War was about states’ rights.

“Let me be clear, for those who don’t seem to know: Slavery was the cause of the Civil War,” he said. “There’s no negotiation about that.”

Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Florida shortly after DeSantis enacted the new history standards to criticize the policies and accused Florida Republicans of being “extremists” who “want to replace history with lies.”

Republican leaders are conscious of the critiques and eager to push back on any characterization that the party has shifted from its abolitionist roots.

Republicans were founded “because somebody needed to take a bold, uncompromising stand on human rights and civil liberties. That is not woke. That is a fact,” said Kaufmann, the Iowa GOP chair. “We are the party of Abraham Lincoln. We have always been the party of Abraham Lincoln."

While the controversies focus on the past, conservative opposition to broader accounts of American history are rooted in concerns over the social implications they open up, experts say.

"The Republican Party is very much in favor of an understanding of American history that we are a country that is exceptional, that we have brought freedom to the world, that we have overcome the challenges of the past and that we need to be proud of our past,” said Paul Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University.

Democrats, Peterson said, are “more likely to say there’s a lot in our past that we need to reflect upon and, and maybe apologize for.”

Republican candidates have traded barbs among themselves over historical issues for months. DeSantis and Trump have both criticized Haley for her Civil War comments. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, criticized DeSantis over Florida’s history standards, saying slavery was "devastating" and that he "would hope that every person in our country — and certainly running for president — would appreciate that.”

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who suspended his campaign on Wednesday, referenced the Civil War with a word of caution to Republican voters. Benjamin Franklin, Christie recalled, said Americans had been given, “a republic, if you can keep it.”

“Benjamin Franklin’s words were never more relevant in America than they are right now. The last time they were that relevant was the Civil War — which we know was caused by slavery,” Christie said.

The intra−party jabs echo a broader debate over the legacy of the Civil War for policymaking today.

“The Civil War was more than 150 years ago and we still haven’t fully come to terms with the consequences for this society,” said Eric Foner, Columbia University professor emeritus and author of histories of the Republican Party and the Civil War.

“I think there’s generally a feeling on the part of Republicans and conservatives across the board that the people who are trying to take down statues and trying to rename the streets are against American history and that everything about America that we used to believe was good in the past is now being cast as evil,” said Geoff Kabaservice, vice president of political studies at the Niskanen Center, a center−right think tank.

Such sentiments are widely shared among Republican voters, who may react “with polarization and partisanship on these historical issues" in response to broader cultural shifts in the understanding of America’s central story, Kabaservice said.

The Civil War debate also highlights other realities about the GOP’s coalition, which is now based in the American South and not in the North where the party was founded. Democrats and Republicans "have essentially stolen the garb of the other party from the 19th century,” Foner said.

“I think, in fact, it’s very possible to acknowledge the sins of the country, even the atrocities committed in this country, and also its noble ideals and promises," Kabaservice said.

“But this is not really a time that is generous toward complexity and nuance so that kind of thing gets lost in the politics that we have nowadays.”

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Matt Brown is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on social media.

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The Associated Press’s coverage of race and democracy receives support from the Lilly Endowment. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Matt Brown, The Associated Press

Photo: AP

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