Sen. Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) was given an unenviable task on Wednesday evening. His job was to give the GOP case in a speech televised live across the country rebutting President Joe Biden’s first address to both houses of Congress.
Scott’s problem was multifaceted: First, unlike Biden, who is still riding high in the polls — and, 100 days after being sworn in as president, getting higher approval ratings than Trump did at any point in his presidency — Scott, who has been a U.S. senator since 2013, has only a limited national profile. Second, Biden has perfected a speech-making style over the past several months that allows him to pitch progressive policies to his audience while coming across as genial, simply spouting common sense platitudes and a sort of happy populism, in stark contrast to the divisiveness of former president Donald Trump. It’s an approach that makes him a more difficult target for conservative politicians. And, third, most of Biden’s key policies, especially on the economy, on vaccine distribution, on health care, on job investments in clean energy, on tackling climate change and on reimagining the social safety net and tax code, have majority support among the voting public.
Distinctly absent from Biden’s speech to Congress were any of the pyrotechnics of Trump or the poetic oratorical skills of Obama. Instead, his approach is methodical. Over the course of a little more than an hour Biden described a series of policy changes that, if even partially enacted, would represent the biggest shift in American governance in generations.
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The president talked openly about the need to unionize workers and about the urgency of tackling economic inequality. He asserted that “trickle-down economics has never worked” and argued that there is something wrong with a system that allowed a few hundred billionaires to accumulate over $1 trillion in new wealth during the pandemic at the same time as 20 million American workers lost their jobs. He called for targeted tax increases on wealthy individuals and large corporations. He demanded comprehensive immigration reform, gun control legislation and huge investments in green technology. He called for the creation of a Health Advanced Research Projects Agency to fund medical innovation and seek cancer cures. He demanded legislation to enforce equal pay for women in the workplace, to ban anti-LGBTQ discriminatory practices, to mandate a $15 per hour minimum wage, as well as 12 weeks a year of paid family and sick leave. He urged Congress to create universal pre-K education and to fully fund community college education for all students using those institutions. He also announced an international vaccination drive to be fueled by American surplus vaccines and technology.
Meanwhile, in a move that disappointed antiwar activists but removed a possible avenue of attack from the right, Biden pledged toughness against Russia and China, and in a regrettable but unsurprising continuity with previous administrations, asserted a foreign policy goal of maintaining economic and military dominance over the two nations.
All of this left Senator Scott little to work with, and, for a purported rising star of the GOP, he really didn’t seem too engaged in the task of delivering an all-out rebuttal of the progressive measures that Biden discussed.
The senator, whose speech lasted just a little over 15 minutes, focused his critique mainly on the “partisanship” of the COVID relief bills passed since Biden’s inauguration, rather than attacking the substance of the bills themselves. “Republicans support everything you think of when you think of infrastructure,” he said. “But again, Democrats want a partisan wish list. They won’t even build bridges to build bridges.”
At a time of massive economic dislocation, much of it triggered by a pandemic that, under Trump’s presidency was allowed to spiral out of control, Scott couldn’t come up with more than a few predictable platitudes about the dynamism of the pre-pandemic Trump-era economy, and clichéd insults with which to critique Biden’s series of complex and big-picture economic proposals. He accused Biden of using the idea of infrastructure and COVID relief investments as a Trojan horse to pass a “liberal wish-list of Big Government waste … plus the biggest job-killing tax hikes in a generation.” But there were no real specific, hands-on critiques of the infrastructure plan — probably because most Americans, including large numbers of Republican voters, support that plan.
Meanwhile, Scott made the usual rhetorical gifts expected by the GOP base — accusing Biden of promoting taxpayer-funded abortions and of wanting to pack the Supreme Court (a particularly strange claim given that Biden has been remarkably reluctant to countenance the idea pushed by other Democrats of expanding the court). He also accused Biden of pushing open borders, promoting “Washington schemes or socialist dreams,” and “pulling us further apart.”
At one point Scott did latch onto one actual weak spot for the Democrats: the fact that, as a pandemic response, many Democratic governors allowed public schools in their states to shut down for a whole year — a policy that many parents across the political spectrum were unhappy with. Yet, instead of hammering on this point, Scott merely mentioned it and then moved on to touch on the infrastructure plan and then attack “virtue signaling” activists on America’s left.
Scott’s speech reflected the smallness of the political imagination of the party he represents, and it summed up the modern GOP’s problem. Still in hock to the Trump personality cult, the party has been unable to move on and shape comprehensive, and politically popular, responses to the vast number of big-picture policy changes that Biden is advocating.
And Biden, a skillful politician comfortable in working Washington’s levers of power, is proving to be a surprisingly forceful advocate for an array of big-picture changes to the way the U.S. defines itself.
Biden is taking the public with him, and is using events such as his non-state-of-the-union address on Wednesday night to explain, in easy-to-follow language, the urgency of passing bold and long-lasting legislation on the economy, on health care access, on green investments, on education, on policing, and on moving the needle on racial justice.
In a year convulsed by protests against the police-perpetrated killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black men, women and children, the party line on race pushed by Scott and others in the GOP will be hard for many to stomach. Barely three months after a race-baiting Trump reluctantly left office, Scott — who spoke at some length about his own experiences of racial discrimination and being pulled over for no reason as a Black driver — then looked at the cameras and asked his audience to “Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country.”
And in a period in which Republican state legislatures are doing everything in their power to restrict voting rights in ways that disproportionately impact Black communities, Scott argued that all the GOP lawmakers were doing was trying to “make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.” How Georgia’s law banning the practice of giving water to people waiting in line to vote fits that analysis, he didn’t attempt to explain, although he did bemoan the “misplaced outrage” of those who argue that voter suppression is discriminatory.
“The real story is always redemption,” Scott said, attempting to rebuff Biden. But the problem with this strategy is that Biden himself, a one-time moderate who has, under considerable pressure from social movements, adopted progressive policies and become more determined to tackle the crises confronting the U.S., would entirely agree. And, on Wednesday night, unlike Senator Scott, he had the policy prescriptions to boost his case.