A decade into his congressional career, the 55-year-old raised by a single mother in a poor suburb of Charleston has become a figure of considerable respect and power inside the Senate, where he has stayed above many of the nasty internal fights racking the post-Trump GOP.
Wednesday’s speech, however, will be an unusual showcase for Scott, who has approached national exposure cautiously — preferring speeches and freewheeling interviews to the sound bites delivered in Senate hallways and Sunday talk shows. Many Republicans are hoping that he can reprise — or perhaps outshine — the performance he gave at last year’s Republican National Convention, where he delivered one of the event’s best-reviewed speeches.
“I think the party is lucky to have Tim,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), noting the great esteem in which Scott is held inside the GOP ranks. “If you had a secret ballot, he would win unanimously. If you had an open ballot, he’d win unanimously. He is, by far, I think, across the board, the most respected person” in the Senate Republican conference.
Scott’s elevated profile has also made him a target for some on the right. Tucker Carlson, the influential host of the highest rated show on the conservative Fox News network, questioned the need for policing legislation in a Monday night monologue where he mocked Scott’s statement that there was “more work to be done” in rooting out bad cops after a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd.
Scott has kept the details of his speech closely held, saying in a brief interview Tuesday that his own personal story would be a central part — and he said he planned to follow one golden rule: “Keep it simple.”
“From my perspective, you know, you figure out who your audience is, you figure out what you want to say, and you try to find a way to say it well,” he said. “And you lean into who you are.”
For Scott, that is likely to mean embracing a bygone flavor of free-enterprise conservatism — the sunny, opportunity-focused rhetoric once purveyed by the likes of Ronald Reagan, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and former House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).
In a statement last week, Scott said he would be “having an honest conversation with the American people and sharing Republicans’ optimistic vision for expanding opportunity and empowering working families.” On Tuesday, he tweeted that he plans on “sharing the Republican Party’s Opportunity Agenda with the nation.”
While Scott is sometimes mentioned as a potential presidential candidate in 2024 or beyond, he has established little of the traditional groundwork for a presidential run. What he has done is chart a deliberate course around the roiling waters of internal Republican politics following Trump’s loss, staying out of divisive internal fights and keeping his political brand tied to his purist brand of conservatism.
Still, Scott retains a role as the GOP’s de facto point man on race-related issues, even as he has sought to make fiscal issues the centerpiece of his work as a lawmaker.
As a member of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Scott has had a hand in significant achievements, including writing a sweeping “opportunity zone” initiative into the 2017 Republican tax overhaul. No issue he has tackled has been quite as prominent or as sensitive as his work on policing.
Where Democrats rolled out a sweeping bill last year after Chauvin murdered Floyd — one that would allow police officers to be sued personally for their actions in the line of duty, ban the use of chokeholds, strengthen federal civil rights laws and create a database of bad cops, among other provisions — Scott countered with a much less aggressive proposal that sought to incentivize rather than mandate departments to adopt changes. Put to a Senate vote in June, the vast majority of Democrats voted against proceeding with it, blocking further action.
While no deal came together in the heat of an election year and a raging coronavirus pandemic, the talks did not entirely falter, and Scott — for now — maintains the trust of his fellow Republicans to hash out a deal.
"Tim's the guy on our side that's got the credibility," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.). "He's the only one who's been stopped for driving while Black, as he put it, many times. … It's hard to legislate trust, but we certainly want to try."
So far he has engaged in a respectful but not yet fruitful exchange of ideas with Democrats led by Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who represents a heavily African American urban district in Los Angeles, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who once led Newark, a majority Black city.
As talks heated up last week ahead of the Chauvin verdict, Bass praised Scott as a “straight shooter” and declared herself “very optimistic” a deal could be reached. Though some of that optimism appeared to dissipate later in the week, following the guilty verdicts, the talks are still ongoing.
“Tim and I disagree on a whole bunch, obviously,” Booker said Tuesday. “But he’s a friend. … He’s a good faith actor, and he’s also a Black man in America and knows a lot of these issues personally. So if anybody can get it done on his side, he’s the right person to be negotiating.”
Scott still faces the question of how far he is willing to push colleagues or to go himself to strike a deal with Democrats on policing. During his time in the Senate he has rarely strayed from the party’s position. Even after his condemnations of some of Trump’s rhetoric, he didn’t keep his distance from the former president for long.
As Trump escalated his attacks on the 2020 election results, Scott mostly kept quiet — ultimately following the lead of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in declaring there was “no constitutionally viable means” for Congress to overturn state election results while at the same time filing a bill to create an “Election Integrity Commission” to continue scrutinizing the results.
The next day, after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, seeking to stop the counting of electoral votes for Biden, Scott was not among those who held Trump responsible for the violence. He quickly declared himself opposed to Trump’s impeachment, saying it would “only lead to more hate and a deeply fractured nation” and later, in a Fox News Channel appearance, he absolved Trump of any blame for the riot.
“The president is simply not guilty,” he said on Feb. 8. “The chances of me understanding and appreciating the severity of the situation is 100 percent. The one person I don’t blame is President Trump.”
That approach has given Scott credibility across the Trumpological divides of the Republican Party. He won the joint nod of the two top Republican leaders on Capitol Hill — McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who themselves have adopted varying approaches to the post-Trump GOP.
“Nobody is better at communicating why far-left policies fail working Americans,” McConnell said, announcing the pick. Said McCarthy, “No member in Congress epitomizes the essence of today’s Republican Party more than my friend and colleague Senator Scott.”
Last summer’s RNC speech holds some clues for how Scott is likely to approach his response to Biden’s aggressive legislative agenda, which proposes to add trillions of dollars in federal spending over the coming decade, above and beyond the roughly $2 trillion Democratic covid relief package.
While much of the message was focused on economic opportunity and Scott’s own family journey out of poverty, he also nodded toward the brand of cultural warfare that has become the centerpiece of the Republican message during Biden’s presidency, accusing Democrats of “trying to permanently transform what it means to be an American.”
“Make no mistake,” he said. “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want a cultural revolution, a fundamentally different America. If we let them, they will turn our country into a socialist utopia, and history has taught us that path only leads to pain and misery, especially for hard-working people hoping to rise.”
But it will be on the work of overhauling police practices where signs of bipartisanship or a willingness to strike a deal will be listened for most closely Wednesday night.
After the Chauvin verdict, Scott signaled he would not flinch from his plan to, as he put it, “repair the tenuous relationship between law enforcement and Black and minority Americans.”
“I urge people across this nation to peacefully make their voices heard and engage in conversations that will continue to move us toward a more just America,” he said. “I believe in the goodness of our country; we can and will do better.”