Republicans could have chosen any number of people in their caucus to deliver the response to President Biden’s address to Congress, but only one could describe what was like to be pulled over by police and followed in a store because of the color of his skin: Senator Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate and one of only three on Capitol Hill.
In a polished performance on Wednesday night, Scott vouched for his party, saying America in the 21st century is not defined by the “systematic racism” referenced by Biden in his address to Congress. Instead, Scott said explicitly America is not a racist country and condemned those who use “race as a political weapon” and “people are making money and gaining power by pretending we haven’t made any progress. By doubling down on the divisions we’ve worked so hard to heal.” Scott portrayed liberals as the real racists, doling out MAGA red meat by condemning schools where “kids again are being taught that the color of their skin defines them — and if they look a certain way, they’re an oppressor,” an oblique attack critical race theory en vogue on the left.
As for Biden, he said the president was not following through on his promises to unite the country and lower the political temperature, but that Republicans somehow could. “Common sense makes common ground,” he said.
It was the first major prime-time moment for any Republican since Donald Trump left office, and Scott is the messenger his party wants delivering the message that they think will succeed in the post-Trump era. The two-term senator from South Carolina embodies a big-tent vision of the GOP that many thought that party would embrace after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss, but instead, it embraced the vision, promoted by Trump, of strident grievance.
Raised by a single mother in South Carolina, Scott has long made his biography a staple of his stump speeches: how he turned his life around, from a failing high-school student to successful small businessman, before going on to defeat Strom Thurmond’s son in a 2010 House primary. Two years later, he was appointed to a vacant Senate seat in 2012 to become only the seventh Black senator in U.S. history. Scott is by no means a moderate. He’s compiled a consistently conservative record on Capitol Hill. And, while willing to criticize Trump’s most extreme excesses in office, he still spoke at Trump’s 2020 convention and opposed impeachment after the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
While Scott is not the first Black Republican to respond to a presidential address — former Oklahoma congressman J.C. Watts did so in 1997 — he is doing so at a time when politics is increasingly polarized on issues of race and identity. Scott’s address comes only a week after Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd, and in the middle of debates over GOP-led changes in voting laws, in states such as Georgia, that have Democrats charging that Republicans want a return to Jim Crow. Scott defended the Georgia voting laws as “mainstream,” noting that he was “an African American who has voted in the South all my life,” while claiming Democrats were demagoguing the issue for political advantage.
He has long offered his own conservative perspective on issues of race, pushing opportunity zones and tax credits for investments in economically deprived areas as a free-market solution to urban poverty. More recently, he has been a leading proponent of a conservative vision of police reform — albeit one that was blocked by Democrats in 2020, because it still maintained qualified immunity that protects officers from being sued personally for conduct on the job, as well as strong statutory protections for police officers against prosecution for misconduct. Scott did not go into details on his proposed legislation but instead chided Democrats for using the filibuster to block it.
Scott also took a swipe at a Washington Post fact-checker who recently explored the South Carolinian’s claim his family “went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime,” which prompted backlash from many on the right, who called it a bizarre attack on a respected political leader.
Responses to presidential addresses to Congress are often more remembered for viral gaffes, like Marco Rubio drinking water in 2013, than stirring rhetoric, but it may be a small test of whether the GOP can define its own message or, if yet again, it will be superseded by an edict from Mar-a-Lago.