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 personalised 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.