The Squandered Potential of Tim Scott

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina ended his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination this week having failed to make good on his early promise as a candidate who could broaden the party coalition in a general election. And while he could still have a long career ahead of him in Republican politics, his failure to connect with the primary electorate ought to trouble those pining for a more diverse and capacious G.O.P.

Mr. Scott spent much of his campaign making hard-right appeals in a vain effort to wrest a portion of his party’s base from Donald Trump. For social conservatives, he offered a federal abortion ban at 15 weeks. For immigration and crime hard-liners, he supported ending birthright citizenship and committing troops to a war in Mexico against the drug cartels. In a recent appearance in Iowa, he even broadly alleged that Chinese college students studying in America could be “reporting back to the Chinese Communist Party.” And last month, he accused President Biden of having “blood on his hands” after Hamas attacked Israel, baselessly suggesting that by releasing Iranian oil revenue ⁠as part of a prisoner swap — for humanitarian uses, under American supervision — the president might have financed the massacre.

None of this separated Mr. Scott, either in substance or in the polls, from the rest of the pack. But Mr. Scott did try make his candidacy distinctive in one important way: selling Republican voters, at every opportunity, a message of racial uplift that minimizes the extent to which racism still shapes American life.

On paper, Mr. Scott was well positioned to deliver it.

He could have been the first Black Republican nominee. Already, he is not only the South’s first Black senator since Reconstruction, but the first the region has ever popularly elected (he won a special election in 2014 after being appointed to his seat a year earlier by a rival 2024 candidate, Nikki Haley). And over the years, he has spoken often about his experiences as a Black man. He has described being pulled over on the road some 18 times in 20 years and being stopped by the Capitol Police on the way to work even as he wore a senator’s pin.

Mr. Scott makes frequent reference, too, to voices on the left who have exposed their own racism by subjecting him to stereotypes and slurs and dismissing his agency. “When I fought back against their liberal agenda,” he said in the video announcing his presidential exploratory committee, “they called me a prop, a token, because I disrupt their narrative.”

But Mr. Scott always sweetened these disclosures with a spoonful of sugar. “Is there racism in America?” he asked at a July campaign event. “Of course there is. Are the systems of our country racist? I don’t think so.” While racism lingers on, in other words, the strides we’ve made since slavery and the civil rights movement have been so great that we should deride those who argue it defines American identity or still structures our present.

His own life story ⁠is, as far as he’s concerned, strong evidence in support of this idea. “Growing up in a single-parent household, I wondered if the American dream would work for a kid in the inner city,” he said at September’s Republican debate. “I’ve got good news for every single child, whether you’re in the inner cities of Chicago or the rural parts of Iowa. America and the dream — it is alive, it is well and it is healthy.”

While most Republicans surely agreed that Mr. Scott’s background fatally undermined the critiques their opponents have been making of America and its history — “I am living proof that our founders were geniuses who should be celebrated, not canceled,” he told a crowd in Iowa early this year — they weren’t enthralled by his campaign, perhaps because Mr. Scott’s message of racial uplift doesn’t have more than a cerebral appeal to an overwhelmingly white Republican primary electorate. Thus far, the party’s voters have preferred to get their defenses of American history straight and neat from Mr. Trump and Ron DeSantis, without the detours into personal narrative that Mr. Scott offered up.

Mr. Scott insists often that he doesn’t want people to think about his race at all. “People are fixated on my color,” he said to Politico in a 2018 profile. “I’m just not.” There’s a similar line in “America: A Redemption Story,” Mr. Scott’s 2022 entry in a now-venerable genre, the pre-campaign memoir. “Today we live in a world that thrives on creating narratives of division,” it reads. “But my childhood and my life have not been defined by my blackness.”

The book itself suggested otherwise — that Mr. Scott was not only as fixated on his own color as the critics he scorned but also as determined to make use of it. The words “Black” or “African American” appear 75 times, or once every three-and-a-half pages — often within its capsule biographies of Black figures like Jackie Robinson and Madam C.J. Walker, whom Mr. Scott evidently sees as his historic peers. In truth and by design, the book is as much a kind of Black History Month reader as it is about Mr. Scott’s own life. And even that material begins with his grandfather teaching his mother how to pick cotton.

Ben Carson’s more successful run for the Republican nomination in 2016 seemed to have some of what Mr. Scott’s campaign lacked — though almost forgotten today, Mr. Carson, unlike Mr. Scott, actually found his way to the top tier of contenders for a time. To be sure, the substance of Mr. Carson’s commentary on race did resemble Mr. Scott’s. In a representative interview with the conservative talk radio host Dennis Prager, he both denied the persistence of deep racial inequality in American society — “Race doesn’t really keep you down in this country if you get a good education” — and argued that the racism worth worrying about was coming from his progressive critics. “It’s mostly with the progressive movement who will look at someone like me, and because of the color of my pigment, they decide that there’s a certain way that I’m supposed to think,” he said. “And if I don’t think that way, I’m an Uncle Tom and they heap all kinds of hatred on you. That, to me, is racism.”

But unlike Mr. Scott, Mr. Carson rarely discussed race of his own volition, on or off the stump. “Asked about it,” Molly Ball observed in The Atlantic, “he tends to deflect, rejecting racial distinctions as divisive.” And to the extent that Mr. Carson’s campaign did attempt to harness race to its advantage, as it did in a pair of conservative talk radio ads it aired before South Carolina’s primary that year, it did so the old-fashioned way: appealing to the racial anxieties and outright racism of white right-of-center voters. One of the South Carolina ads “inveighed against affirmative action as ‘racial entitlement’ while the other depicted Black crime as a ‘crisis,’” Ms. Ball wrote. “Taken together, the ads were a striking attempt to provoke white voters’ racial attitudes by a candidate who has otherwise avoided the subject.”

Mr. Carson’s own bootstraps story, meanwhile, mirrors Mr. Scott’s in certain respects — both men came to success from poverty and broken homes — but Mr. Carson’s personal narrative was also a tale of Christian redemption. As he tells it, he worked past the anger and violence of his youth through studying the Bible, which made him famous among the conservative evangelicals who would take an interest in his campaign long before he entered politics.

Mr. Scott has nothing like that story in his own narrative — a comparatively simple rags-to-Republican tale about the virtues of hard work and rejecting racial victimhood that, while appealing in the abstract to essentially everyone on the right, wasn’t compelling enough to excite any important constituency in particular. So where Mr. Carson ran largely as a conventional evangelical Republican candidate — racial dog whistles and all — Mr. Scott actively tried and failed to make a race-based message connect.

It is important to note that Mr. Scott — a descendant of slaves who is, by all accounts, still warmly received in the North Charleston community where he grew up — is no less fully and authentically Black for being a conservative or having used his identity to sell conservatism. Criticisms of Mr. Scott on this front are inane. The Black community is ideologically diverse — and, in fact, substantively more conservative than the Democratic margins among Black voters might suggest.

The pool of Black voters who are skeptical or hostile to the progressive movements that Mr. Scott reviles or who believe, as he does, that unshackling capitalism further might liberate struggling Black communities, may be even larger — and it includes Democrats and independents. This is what might have made Mr. Scott such a formidable general election contender: Given the thin electoral margins in swing states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, even mild slippage rightward among Black voters could be potentially catastrophic for Democrats.

But luckily for them, the G.O.P. is still Donald Trump’s party, and nothing Mr. Scott could have said or done would have changed that.

Mr. Scott, in fact, has taken pains to frame himself as an occasionally critical but generally loyal friend of the former president, going as far as absolving him of responsibility for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. In his campaign memoir, Mr. Scott describes being invited to the White House for a conciliatory chat after publicly condemning Mr. Trump for what he said after the violence in Charlottesville. When Mr. Trump asked him what he could to do make amends to those he’d offended, Mr. Scott sensed an opportunity to plug Opportunity Zones — tax incentives for private investment in specific high poverty areas, a policy idea he’d nurtured for some time.

“The next day, I was stunned to read about President Trump answering a question as he boarded Air Force One,” he writes. “When asked about how our meeting went, he started talking about the importance of rebuilding lower-income neighborhoods through Opportunity Zones.”

Opportunity Zones eventually found their way into the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, and are talked up today, by Mr. Scott, as an example of how rejecting the politics of racial outrage — and, implicitly, countenancing the racism of Republican politicians like Mr. Trump — might pave the way toward making material, market-driven gains for racial minorities. The fact that nearly half of the tax breaks offered under the program thus far had gone to just 1 percent of the designated zones by the end of 2020 — and to projects like a $600 million Ritz-Carlton development in Portland, Ore. — is of no consequence to him.

This is Mr. Scott’s dream and, by his lights, America’s: the notion that we might continue making racial progress (even though there’s not much left to make) with the business-friendly policy tools already available to us, and without fundamentally reworking our politics or our economy. It is a thoroughly conservative vision that was offered by a capable conservative spokesman — one who won the respect of Republican voters but not nearly enough of their support.

Osita Nwanevu is a contributing editor at The New Republic and a columnist at The Guardian.

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