Column: Tim Scott is the alternative Republicans would want for president, except they’ve never heard of him

Sen. Tim Scott speaking at a campaign event
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) represents a hopeful brand of Republicanism that sets him apart.
(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)
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Now that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has announced he’s running for president, it looks as if the 2024 general election is going to be one of those big-budget sequels nobody asked for.

Maybe Republicans will bring Donald Trump back. Maybe they cast someone younger to play the part. Would it really matter? Once DeSantis declared, “Florida is where woke goes to die,” it looked as though Trumpism was going to be on the ballot regardless of whether Trump was.

But maybe not.

Although DeSantis has the name recognition and a reported $80 million in his war chest, what he doesn’t offer conservatives is an alternative to Trumpism.


DeSantis used Trumpism to catapult himself into this position by signing a series of laws curtailing access to voting, attacking diversity efforts and picking fights with businesses he does not like. If DeSantis were really an alternative to Trumpism, his record would look very different. He’d be known for, say, trying to save the estimated 900,000 homes at risk of being underwater in his state as the ocean rises. But instead he’s known for his efforts to stop people from saying the word “gay.”

Which brings me to Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who also announced this week that he was running for president. I appreciated DeSantis’ attempt to incorporate social media in his announcement, glitches and all. However, the fact that Scott did it the old-fashioned way — a rally in his home state — suggests he is the candidate exhausted Republicans are looking for.

Scott isn’t a bully. He’s respected by peers on both sides of the aisle. He’s a bona fide conservative on social issues. He is offering a kind of nostalgia that is very different from the one suggested by the slogan “Make America Great Again.”

Scott is giving Republicans a chance to return to the decency of Gerald Ford and the aspiration of Ronald Reagan. (Though it’s important to note Ford and Reagan’s brand of decency wasn’t decent for everyone. But at least they weren’t arrested after leaving office.)

“We have to have a compassion for people who don’t agree with us, “ Scott said recently. “We have to believe that our ideas are so strong and so powerful and so persuasive that we can actually take it to the highest points in the world and be successful, but we also have to be able to take it all the way down to places that today are hopeless and prove that who we are works for all Americans.”

He also recently told NBC News that he would not try to overturn the election, which is an odd but nevertheless encouraging thing to hear.


Maybe Scott’s decency and reasonable positions explain why he has about a quarter as much campaign money as DeSantis has. Or maybe Scott, the first Black person from the South to be elected to the Senate since Reconstruction, just needs more time to build his campaign. Although he’s been in Congress since 2013, his more brash, antagonistic colleagues such as Sen. Ted Cruz have gotten significantly more airtime. It’s the Catch-22 of politics: Voters say they want decorum, but they’re drawn to fights.

Trump fights.

DeSantis fights.

Maybe Scott can fight, but it’s not his default mode. Without getting his clean image dirty, can he convince Republicans that he’s willing to get in the mud? And more importantly, with so many white nationalists using Trumpism as the vehicle for their grievances and rising in the GOP, how does Scott compete for Republican primary votes without sacrificing integrity?

Correction: without sacrificing any more integrity.

He seems nice enough, but I haven’t looked at him the same since he tried to make “woke supremacy” a thing back in 2021. This is why I question whether Scott can maintain a campaign fueled on optimism when red meat is cheaper and racism burns hotter. Ultimately that’s a question more about Republican voters than about Scott. If the senator can gain traction with a message of hope, maybe he can be the conservative Obama … you know, minus the acknowledgment of systemic racism and attacks on voting rights, because that’s a Republican turnoff.

For the moment, Trump is complimenting Scott, so that should tell you what the front-runner thinks of his chances.

Some politicos have suggested Scott isn’t really trying to win the GOP nomination as much as position himself as a viable running mate to whoever does. (Given the messy breakup, it’s doubtful Trump and Mike Pence would try to get the band back together.) It’s a depressing thought, because that would mean at the end of the primary season, Scott would just be joining Trumpism anyway. So what would have been the point of all his talk about optimism?

Either way, I have to wonder: Who is the optimistic talk for? The moderate Republicans longing for a candidate to focus on the economy instead of harping on drag queens? Or the Republicans at risk of siding with the racist wing if Scott couldn’t offer them an alternative?


It won’t matter if he can’t get his message out above the DeSantis-Trump din. Did I mention Scott’s currently polling in single digits?

Let’s hope that’s just a reflection of how recently he joined the field — and not of voters’ stance on optimism.