The revived debate about the Confederate battle flag has climaxed with exceptional speed in South Carolina, where the state’s three most prominent Republicans led a bipartisan call Monday for removing the banner completely from the state capitol.
Sen. Lindsey Graham was seizing an opening to underscore his maverick political brand and distinguish himself in a field of presidential candidates who have remained largely equivocal on the polarizing question. Gov. Nikki R. Haley was taking advantage of an opportunity allowing her to reverse a position that’s complicated her own public profile.
But for Sen. Tim Scott, the moment represented something quite different. He’s got no overt national ambitions at the moment, but his background afforded him a unique platform for raising public consciousness about a deeply ingrained hurt that’s confounded healing for a century and a half.
Scott is not only the solitary Republican senator who’s African-American and the first black person elected to the Senate from the South since the end of Reconstruction. He’s also the most popular politician in the state, having won a special election last fall with an astonishing 82 percent of the white vote while also outperforming both the more prominent GOP candidates seeking re-election statewide that day — garnering 84,000 more votes than Graham and 61,000 more than Haley.
That’s an extraordinary combination of attributes. So it was the fact that Scott joined the calls for the flag to be mothballed — on the grounds it’s become a symbol so much more identified with racism and hatred than with regional pride — that will provide reluctant colleagues in the Republican Party the most political cover for getting on the right side of history at close to the last available moment.
Scott had promised as recently as Sunday that he wouldn’t say anything on the topic for another week, after all the funerals for the nine black people murdered inside a storied Charleston church last week by a 21-year-old man who said he was motivated by the desire to start a race war (and whose car displayed the Confederate flag license plate available in South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union and the place where the Civil War began).
“I do not believe the vast majority of folks who support the flag have hate in their hearts,” Scott said in a written statement explaining his reasoning. “Their heritage is a part of our state’s history, and we should not ignore that. However, for so many others in our state, the flag represents pain and oppression.”
The nation is paying close attention to the extraordinary rapid changes of political heart — none more intently than the sprawling field of Republican presidential candidates who are, of course, looking ahead to a primary in South Carolina that will take 2016’s initial measure of the overwhelmingly white and culturally conservative GOP voters in the South. (Symbolism evocative of the Confederacy lives on in the flags of seven states across the region.)
Other than Graham, the presidential aspirants have remained equivocal, with many of them declaring the flag debate should remain exclusive with the people of South Carolina — no matter the office they are seeking comes with the nation’s premier bully pulpit and unparalleled potential for exercising moral authority.
Graham has made a political career of staking out counterintuitive and provocative positions that benefit him in the end. But being in the vanguard of polarizing discourse has generally been antithetical to Scott’s approach.
Instead, unlike so many who first came to the Hill as part of the GOP’s tea party wave of 2010, his congressional method has been to pair his solid small-government conservatism with the approach of a minimal-fanfare facilitator instead of a bomb-thrower.
During the last presidential campaign, when he was a freshman in a coastline-hugging House district connecting Charleston and Myrtle Beach, Scott enticed most GOP candidates to meet with his constituents at a series of sessions he dubbed “Tim’s Town Halls.” He later organized a series of “Revitalizing America” conferences in his district, with panels of CEOs and political leaders discussing the economy and entrepreneurship. And he started a statewide “Women in Leadership” series last fall.
“I think we would do well as a party to find ways to be authentic and sincere in engaging others in a conversation about the future of the country,” he said in an interview last fall for his CQ Roll Call “Politics in America” profile. When issues are presented in a non-political format, he added, “people stay at the table longer.”
Scott frames his legislative efforts as an “opportunity agenda,” describing most of his policy ideas in terms of empowerment or choice for individuals — which almost always means less federal regulation and lower taxes. The GOP leadership rewarded Scott this year with assignments to the Finance and Banking committees, while permitting him to hold his seat on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
A 49-year-old native of North Charleston, Scott says his ideology is a natural outgrowth of his personal story. His parents divorced when he was 7, and Scott and his siblings were raised by his mother, a nurses’ aide. He almost flunked out of high school while working a series of jobs at a gas station, a men’s clothing store and a movie theater, but was persuaded to focus on schooling by the owner of a local Chick-fil-A who became his mentor. After graduating from a local college he went into the insurance business and eventually founded his own agency.
Scott’s first political experience was as a low-level campaign aide when Mark Sanford ran his first successful House race in 1994. (After being governor and having a marital crisis, he returned as Scott’s House successor in 2013.) Scott spent 14 years on the Charleston City Council before winning his House seat in 2010. While awaiting the start of his second term, he was appointed to the Senate when Jim DeMint resigned to take over the Heritage Foundation.
South Carolina law requires Scott to run yet again in 2016, this time to secure a full Senate term. He’s now viewed as a safe bet to win again. Another record victory, with another lopsided share of the white vote, would be quantifiable evidence it’s politically safe to consign the Confederate flag to a museum for all time.