Welcome to the quadrennial presidential debate over a battle flag whose side lost 150 years ago. Mitt Romney didn’t actually kick this off — we’ll get to that in a minute — and he’s not running for President anyway. This still will force other Republicans into choosing sides on one of the most mystifying practices in the country:

The presidential-level debate actually started yesterday, courtesy of South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. He told CNN that he’d be fine if the state revisited the issue of flying the flag at its capitol, but that the flag is “part of who we are”:

When Graham was asked his thoughts regarding the Confederate flag, he said, “It works here, that’s what the statehouse agreed to do. You could probably visit other places in the country near some symbol that doesn’t quite strike you right.” …

“We’re not going to give this a guy an excuse about a book he might have read or a movie he watched or a song he listened to or a symbol out anywhere. It’s him … not the flag,” the Republican senator told CNN’s “New Day” Alisyn Camerota.

No one is calling for a ban on displaying the flag for anyone, but many are opposing the decision by South Carolina to make it an official display of the state government. The state didn’t lower the flag to half-staff after the shooting either, even though it did lower the American flag to half-staff in an official display of mourning for the victims of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. As Graham notes, the flag is part of a series of monuments that include tributes to American war dead and African-Americans, but that stands in contrast to the contributions of those honored in the other displays.

As Chuck Todd and I discussed on the Hugh Hewitt show last night, this has come up in every presidential cycle since at least 2000. That’s due in large part to South Carolina’s status as an early primary state, and its impact is entirely on the Republican field. It puts GOP candidates in a theoretically tough position of either pandering to fans of the flag or writing off South Carolina in the primaries. It puts Republicans at a stark disadvantage, all over a flag which stood for rebellion and disunity, whose purpose ended 150 years ago — and the attachment to it should have ended at the same time.

If South Carolina wants to keep flying this flag at its capitol, that’s their decision. But if that’s their decision, then Republicans should push South Carolina to the end of the primary season and end this quadrennial embarrassment for Republicans in most other parts of the country. Enough is enough.

Update: In 2008, both Romney and John McCain called for South Carolina to remove it, while Mike Huckabee defended it:

The Confederate battle flag — an issue that has confounded politicians in South Carolina for more than a decade — is back again, this time in the form of radio ads attacking Republican presidential candidates Sen. John McCain and Mitt Romney for criticizing the flag.

Paid for by Americans for the Preservation of American Culture, the ads also single out rival Republican Mike Huckabee for praise, saying the former Arkansas governor defended the flag as a state and heritage issue. They began running yesterday.

“Mitt Romney’s been trying, but when it comes to bashing the Confederate flag, he can’t hold a candle to John McCain. McCain’s been doing it — calling the flag a racist symbol — for years,” one of the minutelong ads says.

Another ad goes straight for Mr. Romney, with the announcer saying, “Romney let fly in a CNN debate, saying ‘that flag shouldn’t be flown’ and ‘that’s not a flag I recognize.’ ”

Romney’s been consistent on this point. Perhaps more Republicans need to speak on this. The media certainly won’t let them off the hook.

Update: The South Carolina legislature will soon consider a bill to remove the flag — authored by a Republican legislator:

South Carolina state Rep. Norman “Doug” Brannon (R) said Friday night he plans on introducing a bill to remove the Confederate flag near his state’s capitol building.
The legislation was inspired by Wednesday evening’s mass shooting that claimed nine lives at historic black church in Charleston, S.C., he said. …
Brannon said Friday he was mourning the loss of his fellow Palmetto State lawmaker.
“I had a friend die on Wednesday night for no other reason than he was a black man,” Brannon said.
“Sen. Pinckney was an incredible human being,” he added. “I don’t want to talk politics but I am going to introduce the bill for that reason.”
“I want you to understand — I am very upset about the death of my friend and his eight dear friends,” Brannon told [MSNBC’s Chris] Hayes.

Update: Once again, this has nothing to do with a ban, or with silencing the voices of people who like the Confederate flag. Having the flag fly at the state capitol is an endorsement, a form of government speech and a matter of public policy. The state of South Carolina is endorsing the flag of the Confederacy with its decision to fly it on the grounds of state government. That policy is as open for debate and criticism as any other government policy, and has nothing to do with whether others can use the flag for their own purposes. If South Carolina chooses to keep endorsing it, then the rest of us can choose to criticize it, and to take steps that ensure that the political costs of those policies don’t get applied to those outside of South Carolina.

Update: Not sure why I thought it was 160 years ago, but that’s obviously wrong. The civil war ended 150 years ago. I’ve changed it above. Thanks to Voss749 on Twitter for the correction.