Sen. Tim Scott never actively sought the role of race relations ambassador for the Republican Party. The role found him. And on Wednesday night, the happy but sometimes reluctant warrior embraced it with gusto. The only black Republican in the Senate and the most prominent African American Republican on the national stage, Scott delivered his party’s nationally televised response to the President Biden’s joint address to Congress.
It was a powerful moment. South Carolina’s junior senator respectfully but forcefully accused Biden of failing to live up to his promise of unity while the senator expressed commonality with all Americans struggling to rise from humble roots. He then acknowledged the need for significant police reform while arguing the nation isn’t inherently racist:
“Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country. … It’s wrong to try to use our painful past to dishonestly shut down debates in the present.”
The speech was undeniably genuine, calm and solution-oriented. Scott pledged to pursue “common sense and common ground” — welcome balm for a party still struggling to find its way in the post-Trump era even as he credited Trump’s and Republicans’ fight against the coronavirus for creating the “joyful spring” for our nation.
Raised in hardscrabble North Charleston by a single mother who worked long hours, Scott retold his story about overcoming bad grades and disillusionment to become a county official, state legislator, congressman and, ultimately, a U.S. senator. “Growing up, I never dreamed I’d be standing here tonight,” he said solemnly.
Scott then carefully took the fight to Biden, though first saying the president seems like “a good man” and noting that his speech was “full of good words.”
“But our nation is starving for more than empty platitudes,” he argued. “We need policies and progress that bring us together. But three months in, the actions of the president and his party are pulling us further apart.”
Instead of healing the nation, Scott stressed, Biden has delivered a sharp left turn, pushing $6 trillion in proposals, hiking taxes to pay for it all — while failing to require schools to reopen promptly and “weakening our southern border.”
He also lamented Democrats’ decision to use Senate rules to push through COVID-relief legislation on a mainly party-line vote and threatening to do so again with a massive infrastructure bill and other spending measures.
“They won’t even build bridges to build bridges!” he exclaimed.
Afterward, pundits on the right and left gushed with praise even as some social media platforms, including Twitter, were trending with the racially tinged epithet “Uncle Tim.”
Just minutes after Scott’s remarks ended, Fox News’ Chris Wallace hailed his “mad political skills.”
“Man, if I were the Republican National Committee … I would put Tim Scott out as often as I can because he is a great spokesman for the party and a great counterpart to Joe Biden,” Wallace said, declaring that the speech had catapulted Scott into the top tier of the 2024 GOP presidential hopefuls.
Republicans leaders were equally ecstatic.
“Republicans stand for the principles and policies that unite Americans and expand opportunity for working families. Not radical agendas designed to push us apart,” Mitch McConnell tweeted.
The rare, shining moment for Republicans in recent months is raising hopes that Scott can help expand the party’s appeal among blacks and other minorities – and even suburban soccer moms who never could stomach Donald Trump’s personality.
Other polls show the Republican Party losing members in droves after the chaotic Trump presidency. In early April, Gallup polling showed 49% of U.S. adults identifying with the Democratic Party or as independents compared to 40% who identify as Republicans or GOP-leaners. It’s the largest affiliation gap since 2012.
Longtime South Carolina political hands maintain that Scott’s positive message dispels the idea that the party is being overrun by conspiracy theorists and radical Trump supporters.
“Tim broadens our base,” South Carolina GOP strategist Wesley Donehue told RealClearPolitics. “He understand how to explain conservative ideology in a way that minority Americans understand because he’s lived that life.”
Matt Moore, Scott’s first state director and a former chair of the Palmetto State GOP, said his selection to give Wednesday’s rebuttal “is a recognition that Republicans must expand the tent and focus on issues that matter. To me, MAGA-plus-substantive-policy-ideas is a winning political mix while MAGA-plus-conspiracy-theories-and-lunacy is a dead-end road. That is the choice that Republicans have right now.”
But it’s not only Republicans who seem smitten. Scott has spent years building strong relationships with some of the Senate’s most liberal Democrats. After the murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin last week, Scott has redoubled his efforts to broker a compromise police reform deal with liberal Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, and liberal California Rep. Karen Bass.
Last summer Booker was on a roll during an MSNBC interview with hosts Chuck Todd and Katy Tur. He had just referred to then-Senate Majority Leader McConnell as the “grim reaper” responsible for killing bipartisan momentum on several issues — from gun reform to racial justice issues.
Tur then pointedly asked Booker if Scott was “acting in good faith.” Booker’s face lit up talking about his “friend.”
“Tim Scott and I have had so much success – opportunity-zone legislation, the anti-lynching legislation I just mentioned, criminal justice reform, work on [Historically Black Colleges and Universities],” he said. “I honor him, I love him.”
“Tim Scott understands his experience of being black from the South in this country,” added Bekari Sellers, a CNN commentator and former South Carolina state lawmaker, in an interview with PBS. “I have faith that he will guide with his heart on this issue. That’s the Tim Scott I know.”
In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidency, one punctuated in much of the public’s mind by the sight of pro-Trump rioters storming the U.S. Capitol — some carrying Confederate flags — it’s the Tim Scott that GOP leaders want American voters to know, too.
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.