early and often

Tim Scott Runs for President on His Autobiography

Tim Scott preaching to the choir. Photo: Meg Kinnard/AP

If you’ve been paying any attention to South Carolina senator Tim Scott’s career, you probably know he leans on his up-from-poverty life story pretty heavily in talking about his political philosophy. He does so not just to express pride in his and his family’s accomplishments but also to repudiate the idea that government is the solution to the problems facing Black low-income Americans like himself. As his presidential announcement speech in South Charleston on Monday made clear, the 57-year-old, who is serving his second full Senate term, intends to make his autobiography the centerpiece of his 2024 presidential bid.

In a Republican Party whose base is eager for all-out war with Joe Biden and the “radical left” that allegedly controls him, Scott argues that “the truth of my life disproves their lies,” particularly any claim that America needs to deal with racism or the legacy of racism. According to Scott, America always has been and remains “a land of opportunity rather than oppression”; we just need to abandon liberalism in all its forms to allow people like him to flourish via hard work and personal responsibility grounded in patriotism and Christian faith. This is a message perfectly designed for MAGA audiences who view Scott as an unimpeachable witness for the defense of their own righteousness.

Scott has sanded some of the rough edges off the critique of the Biden administration he deployed during the pre-candidacy “listening tour” he conducted earlier this year: He’s no longer explicitly accusing “Biden and the radical left” of preparing and implementing a self-consciously evil “blueprint for ruining America.” The talking points, however, are the same, and all feed into the contention that “America is strong, but Joe Biden is weak.” Biden and his lefty pals have opened wide the borders, demonized the police, persecuted religious folk, wrecked the economy, and trapped kids in failing schools run by “union bosses.”

Scott’s own agenda for turning the country around is a combination of a couple of conservative flavor-of-the-month proposals — using the U.S. military to destroy drug cartels in Mexico and then shut down the border and making assaults on police officers a federal crime — with very standard-brand right-of-center ideas from the 20th century, notably tax incentives for inner-city investment and private-school vouchers. His deepest thoughts on the economy are that the 2017 Republican tax-cut bill created the greatest economy in the history of the world; it was then spoiled by Biden, whose overspending is solely responsible for the “crushing inflation” that is apparently still raging.

It’s this very retro Reagan-Bush messaging, along with Scott’s ebullient, church-influenced speaking style, that leads so many of his allies to refer to him as “sunny” and “optimistic” and even “bipartisan” (though in this and other recent speeches, liberals are incorrigible liars, not partners in governance). He doesn’t use the word carnage to describe Biden’s America, but his diagnosis isn’t much brighter than Donald Trump’s.

Scott’s implicit pitch to Republicans beyond his unique ability to absolve conservatives of racism is superior electability, based not on any data but on his claim that he can get a hearing where other Republicans simply cannot. There is not much in Scott’s electoral history to suggest any particular appeal to Democrats in general or Black voters specifically, and it’s not clear whether swing voters will discern anything original in his extremely shopworn policy agenda. Unlike Trump (whom Scott did not mention in his announcement speech), he professes to harbor “compassion for those who don’t agree with us.” But it comes across as the compassion of the godly for the hardened sinner who needs simply to convert.

When it comes to Scott’s actual campaign strategy, it’s been clear for a while that this very churchy pol is going to compete with his rivals for the allegiance of Iowa’s powerful conservative Evangelical constituency. It’s going to be quite the battle given Mike Pence’s long ties to that constituency, Trump’s status as the enemy-of-Evangelical-enemies and the indirect slayer of Roe v. Wade, and Ron DeSantis’s own culture-war brio. Although Scott barely alluded to abortion in his announcement speech, he has said that, as president, he’d sign the “most conservative” national ban that Congress could get to his desk.

Team Scott is probably waiting nervously to see how DeSantis’s own formal announcement of candidacy later this week goes; every other Trump rival badly needs for DeSantis’s recent troubles to continue and intensify and for DeSantis donors to begin to hedge bets (Scott is a really good fundraiser who can take advantage of such opportunities). But Scott needs to distinguish himself in Iowa and, if possible, sideline his South Carolina ally and competitor, Nikki Haley, while he’s at it. Like Haley, though, the better Scott does in the polls and in the media, the more he will have to battle suspicions that he’s really running for vice-president. If that’s his actual goal or an acceptable plan B, of course, that’s one less thing for him to worry about. Perhaps he should spend any spare time he has finding a few new policy ideas to go with his gold-plated autobiography.

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Tim Scott Runs for President on His Autobiography