Tim Scott Has a Post-Trump Playbook for Republicans

Delivering the official rebuttal to a presidential address to Congress has never been an especially auspicious assignment. At best it is a mixed blessing; at worse, a ticket to oblivion.

That’s what made Senator Tim Scott’s speech last week so exceptional. In both tone and content, it shows that the Senate’s only Black Republican is a rare political talent who demands attention from both his own party and the opposition.

For his fellow Republicans, Scott may have hit upon the sweet spot for those trying to deal with the twin specters haunting the party: former President Donald Trump, and the wrongheaded belief that the election was stolen.

No Republican is likely to be rewarded by explicitly opposing Trump, so Scott didn’t — his only mention was to praise one of the president’s genuine achievements, Operation Warp Speed. When it comes to election integrity, Scott simply endorsed the least controversial aspects of Georgia’s recent election-reform law and ignored the others. (Notably, and admirably, he also voted to certify the results of the election four months ago.)

Beyond that, Scott personalized his response in a manner that others haven’t. He spoke of being raised by a single mother himself and saluted single parents, avoiding the sometimes condescending attitude Republicans adopt with non-traditional families.

Scott’s presentation was of the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger variety. Yes, his “Our president seems like a good man” line was uncalled for. More justified was his criticism of President Joe Biden on a notable broken promise — that schools would largely be reopened to full-time in-person instruction by Day 100.

Conversely, despite the weeks of howling from Republicans and conservative media over Biden’s mishandling of the migrant surge at the border, Scott gave the matter just a passing mention. Perhaps he’s seen the latest data from the 2020 election and knows that Republicans did even better with Latinos than projected.

Overall, Scott turned a weakness into a strength. He reiterated a charge he made in his speech last year at the Republican National Convention — over Senate Democrats filibustering his post-George Floyd police reform proposal. “My friends across the aisle seemed to want the issue more than they wanted a solution,” he said.

In fact, there was no good reason for Democrats to have blocked Scott’s measure. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but if the Senate had voted on it, the bill would have had to go to conference with a much stronger one supported by House Democrats. Negotiations — not unlike those now going on informally between Scott and Representative Karen Bass — could have produced a bill with an actual chance of becoming law.

Bringing the country together may be harder. The one line that raised the ire of many on the left was when, after sharing some personal experiences of racism, Scott nevertheless declared: “Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country.” After nearly a year of what has come to be deemed “America’s racial reckoning” — including several high-profile police shootings in the last month alone — it’s not surprising that progressives would consider Scott a naïf, a quisling or worse.

And yet, consider where Scott is coming from — personally, not politically. He noted the challenges faced by his single mother. Scott managed to rise from modest circumstances to win a seat in the House and then the Senate. Why wouldn’t he view the country which afforded him that opportunity as something more than just “racist”? Indeed, Scott might even quote former President Barack Obama, a similar racial optimist: “In no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

Despite all this, and despite Vice President Kamala Harris making a similar point, Scott was pilloried on social media. At one point the phrase “Uncle Tim” actually started trending.

This progressive condescension to a Black Republican is hardly new. Last year, former Surgeon General Jerome Adams attended a press conference of the coronavirus task force. Noting the pandemic’s disparately harsh impact on minority communities, Adams recommended that Blacks and Latinos avoid alcohol, drugs and tobacco, using folksy slang terms of endearment. The reaction was as offensive as it was predictable.

One of the most pressing questions for Republicans — and not an irrelevant one for Democrats, of course — is who will win the 2024 “Trump Primary.” Right now the runaway leader is Trump himself. But if he doesn’t run, it’s an open field. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is seen as leading candidate because of his handling of the pandemic in Florida. But Scott’s nimble response to Biden’s first major address — touting an optimistic vision of America and subtly pushing back at the racists and nativists in both parties — suggests that he is a force to contend with.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Robert A. George writes editorials on education and other policy issues for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously a member of the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and New York Post.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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