The Memo

The Memo: Tim Scott readies for big moment

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) will take his biggest step yet on the national stage Wednesday when he delivers the Republican response to President Biden's speech to Congress.

Scott is being talked up in some circles as a potential 2024 presidential candidate.

Whether or not he takes that leap - and some insiders in his home state doubt he has the requisite burning ambition - Wednesday evening will be his most high-profile moment since he addressed the Republican National Convention last year.

It comes at a sensitive time.

The echoes of the Jan. 6 insurrection are still reverberating. Former President Trump is issuing incendiary statements from Florida with increasing frequency. And the highly charged trial of Derek Chauvin, which ended in the former police officer's conviction for murdering George Floyd, held the nation rapt in recent weeks.

Scott is the only Black Republican in the Senate and just the second Black Republican elected since Reconstruction. The other was Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), who left office more than 40 years ago.

The South Carolina senator has talked about his experiences of being unfairly targeted by police, even on Capitol Hill, and he pushes back hard on those who would imply there is something amiss about a Black man allying himself with the GOP.

Raising up his voice makes political sense for the GOP, experts say.

"Look, for a party like the Republicans who have struggled to win African American votes, Latinx votes, Tim Scott has the potential to be really good," said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. "Republicans have a lot of work to do with nonwhite voters. Tim Scott is a real Republican when you look at his voting record, but he comes from a different racial group than the vast majority of Republican elected officials."

Scott is also to the fore in the debate over police reform. He has pushed proposals to encourage police departments to ban the use of chokeholds and to promote the wearing of body cameras.

Scott portrays those ideas as commonsense solutions that could command bipartisan support. But Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), have complained that Scott's proposals are insufficient.

Even among his political opponents, it's hard to find anyone who expresses real dislike of Scott. Instead, they tend to acknowledge his affability and basic decency.

Dick Harpootlian, a Democratic state senator in South Carolina, contrasted Scott's style with the more belligerent rhetoric favored by other Republicans.

"He is a very measured, deliberate man. He is not a bomb-thrower. He is not going to resort to the hyperbole that many of the Republicans do," Harpootlian said. He added that, in responding to Biden, Scott almost certainly "won't do the disrespectful, baiting kind of thing we have seen."

In keeping with that positive tone, Scott said in a short video published Monday on Twitter that he was looking forward to advocating for "conservative values that have led to some of the greatest accomplishments the world has ever known."

Among Republicans, Scott showed an unusual ability to navigate the turbulent waters of the Trump era. He spoke out against then-President Trump during some racial controversies, yet he has mostly avoided alienating the GOP's fervently pro-Trump base.

Scott criticized Trump for his remarks after fatal racist violence in Charlottesville back in 2017. In June, Scott said it was "indefensible" for the president to retweet a video in which a supporter yelled, "White power!"

Scott is staunchly conservative, however. The senator is up for reelection in 2022, and Trump has already backed him. Trump called him "an outstanding senator" in an early March statement in which he delivered his "complete and total endorsement."

Will Folks, a controversial South Carolina blogger and GOP strategist, is known for piquant criticisms of politicians from both parties, but he calls Scott "the gold standard."

"He is one of those independent thinkers who has managed to maintain cross-spectrum support [within the GOP] and support from moderates and independents too," Folks said.

Some independent experts said that Scott had been careful, and a bit more calculating than generally acknowledged, in choosing where to distance himself from Trump - doing so almost solely on race-related issues.

"Tim Scott is a very careful politician. He chooses his battles with his own party very carefully. He chose his critiques of some of the things that Trump did or said very carefully so as not to draw the ire that, say, [Sen.] Mitt Romney [R-Utah] has done," said Danielle Vinson, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University.

Vinson added that, from what she knows of Scott's personality, it seems sure that he has more misgivings about Trump than he publicly expresses.

"Tim Scott is basically a decent, nice man, and I cannot imagine the way Trump talks about people or acts toward people sits well with him personally. But he draws those lines," she said.

Vinson is also among those who doubt Scott will run for the White House. She believes he would be more inclined to seek the governorship of South Carolina - or simply leave electoral politics altogether - in a few more years.

Others think the bigger prizes are waiting for Scott - if he wants them.

"All these other people are tripping over themselves to be contenders or to be perceived as contenders," said Folks. "Tim Scott has generated that kind of buzz by being a substantive leader."

Wednesday will bring a new test of whether he can live up to his admirers' expectations.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.