In the summer of 2018, I spent a day on Capitol Hill with Republican senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who this evening will be delivering the GOP response to President Joe Biden’s address before Congress.
The result of my reporting was a long profile piece, digging into Scott’s unusual background and the strange road that led him to the U.S. Senate. Here’s some of what I noticed about him at the time:
During the era of Donald Trump, Scott’s willingness to criticize the president — coupled with his emphasis on a constructive politics rather than one of racial division — has put him on the radar of many at home in South Carolina and in the nation’s capital. But his ability to sell a solidly conservative agenda with an authentic bipartisan spirit makes him a much more promising politician than his relatively low profile would suggest.
In the summer of 2016, for example, as a debate over police violence and shootings of African-American men ravaged the country, Scott gave a deeply personal speech on the Senate floor. As he does to this day, Scott preferred to stay out of the limelight, but at this national turning point, he related several stories of having been targeted by police since becoming a lawmaker.
As recently as 2015, Scott said, he had been stopped by a Capitol police officer, even though he was wearing his member’s pin. “The officer looked at me, full of attitude, and said: ‘The pin, I know. You, I don’t. Show me your ID,’” the senator explained. “I’ll tell you, I was thinking to myself, either he thinks I’m committing a crime — impersonating a member of Congress — or what?”
It wasn’t the first time a Capitol officer had stopped him to make a similar inquiry. What’s more, during just one year as an elected official, Scott was stopped seven times by law enforcement while driving. The vast majority of those encounters, he said, were the result of “nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood, or some other reason just as trivial.”
It was a landmark moment for the senator. Not only did he praise police officers and note that improper use of violence was rare — echoing the Right’s general line — but he also echoed the concerns of many on the left. For Republicans inclined to dismiss complaints about unequal racial treatment, Scott’s stories were a force to be reckoned with. That day on the floor, Scott showed himself an able communicator, a measured conservative, and a man capable of teaching the Right and reaching the Left by being honest about his life, recognizing that his race mattered while avoiding the toxic, fatalistic conclusions of those who peddle identity politics.
That same spirit enabled Scott to work with President Trump to get his “opportunity zones” legislation through Congress early in his presidency. It also enabled Scott to play a key role in the legislative debate last summer over police reform, offering a major conservative proposal to alter policing practices — though Democratic politicians refused to support his efforts or work on a compromise.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned about Scott when writing my profile of him was that he had long planned to become a minister, until he was nudged in a different direction.
When I asked him if he thought he might find his way into the ministry after retiring from politics, he had this to say: “One day I do see myself, as I exit politics, spending time looking for ways to promote and encourage the human soul, whether in an organized part of the faith movement or just as a spokesperson for the eternal values that have made a difference in all of human history.”
I described him at the time as “a politician with the heart of a minister,” a lawmaker who can connect with individuals and communicate real compassion rather than talking points.
“I thought perhaps that the Good Lord would be able to use the passion that I have for making a difference in a place where ministering would not be the primary call,“ he told me, “but where sharing the same love and compassion for people, with a long view — which is what leads me to be a conservative — would be necessary.”
It will be interesting to see how Scott handles his remarks this evening. It’s a huge opportunity for him to showcase what conservatism has to offer a country bitterly divided, politically polarized, and riven by racial unrest. I can think of no better Republican to speak to this moment.