Tim Scott and a lament of political impossibility

By Matthew Gagnon

On Monday, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina made official his entry into the 2024 presidential race at an event at Charleston Southern University, his alma mater. His announcement had been widely expected for months, and now that it has taken place, his candidacy is real. 

Scott is an interesting figure who I have followed for a long time. I first became aware of him when he was appointed by then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — herself a presidential candidate this year — to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint in December 2012. His appointment made him the first African-American senator from the South since Reconstruction. He has since gone on to win elections in his own right in 2014, 2016 and 2022, each time with more than 60 percent of the vote. 

But it wasn’t his ethnic background nor his electoral victories that made him into a presidential contender. Winning races as a Republican in South Carolina is, after all, not much of a surprise. The thing that turned him from ordinary politician into would-be chief executive was the manner in which he has done his job as a U.S. senator, and his particular brand of politics.

Scott is, in the modern political environment, a bit of a throwback. He is strongly conservative, but he is also a pragmatist who seeks to cut through the partisan rhetoric that typically drowns out substantive policy discussions. He made a name for himself, for instance, trying to find a thoughtful and intelligent bipartisan solution to police reform in the wake of the death of George Floyd. 

He is also an optimist who is selling a message of hope in a time when most of the country seems uninterested in hearing it. He rejects the constant pessimism and catastrophism that we hear almost every day from members of both parties, declaring openly that “America is not a nation in decline,” and arguing for a positive vision for where to take the country.

It seems he wants to emulate the positive, hope-filled candidacies of Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Barack Obama in 2008. But therein lies the problem for Scott.

In any other year, at any other time, Scott would be a strong contender for the White House based on his qualifications, his message and his record. He is a serious and accomplished enough person that ordinarily he would be a major candidate. But will he be? 

More to the point, do Republicans want what he is selling? Does the country at large?

My instincts tell me, sadly, that they do not. Given all that has happened in the country over the past two decades, Republican voters are interested in elevating combative fighters who view the country as being fundamentally broken and in need of massive change. They see decline and social rot everywhere, and they crave candidates that will see it too, and pledge to fight the powerful interests that are responsible for destroying the soul of the country. 

You can quibble about whether they are right in feeling that way or not — I suspect my left-of-center readers would disagree — but that is beside the point. What matters is how they feel, and what they want, and I see no evidence that a sunny optimist who thinks the country is doing great and only needs to swap out the bureaucrats running it will be all that interesting to them.

And I don’t think things are all that different for the broad non-Republican electorate either. To most independent voters (and even Democrats), there is widespread disillusionment with American institutions and a constant feeling of crisis and failure permeating everything. The mood for positivity is, sadly, pretty limited. 

So I wouldn’t expect the Scott candidacy to really go anywhere, which is a real shame because his brand of politics is probably what the country needs the most right now. America has developed a painfully divisive political culture and needs a leader who can articulate a compelling and hopeful vision for America’s future while seriously pursuing answers to intractable problems, and building bridges between radically different populations. It needs a leader with integrity and passion and a fresh, forward-thinking perspective. 

Scott could possibly be that leader, but will he be given the chance? Almost certainly not, because what the voters in this country want is not at all aligned with what they actually need.

Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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