President Biden gave a long address to a joint session of Congress. Within minutes, Republicans cynically rolled out Republican Senator Tim Scott from South Carolina to criticize him.
The genius of Biden’s speech was that it was presented largely in plain speak, addressed to the real audience, the American people, rather than the collection of politicians in the chamber with him. Biden went big. His proposals were designed to say to the people: these are the benefits you can have that will make America competitive in the 21st Century and that will reward you with good-paying jobs, better educational opportunities and improved/more affordable healthcare, among other things. This is bold stuff, designed to look forward and not back to the mythological past favored by white supremacists. Being the old pro that he is, I have no doubt Biden is quite aware of the challenges his agenda faces from the Republican Party of No.
Republicans sat like statues throughout, resisting the slightest show of support for anything Biden had to say, no matter how much it might address real problems of people not included in the richest upper class to whom the GOP owes its primary allegiance. During Biden’s speech, McConnell could have been replaced by a blow-up doll and no one could have distinguished the doll from the immobile person.
The Republican official response, delivered by Sen. Scott, was entirely predictable: NO. NO. NO. You can read the NPR fact-check here if you like. https://n.pr/3eDUCPC I will not waste my time or yours with the details.
Suffice to say that the Republicans are in a bad place here. They are going to adopt the same agenda of obstruction they used against President Obama even as the country and the world were on the precipice of a major economic catastrophe. Republicans really didn’t care. Mitch McConnell made clear the agenda was to make Obama a one-term president, regardless of the cost to the country.
That plan failed. But we got Trump instead, perhaps because many Americans believed that Obama’s election represented a real turning point away from the country’s checkered past and that voting wasn’t necessary. It doesn’t much matter now. Trump was elected, almost certainly with the help of foreign powers, and the rest is history. We are approaching 600,000 dead Americans because Trump downplayed the virus and refused to accept the science. Yeah, sure, he started Operation Warp Speed, but it was going nowhere fast when Biden took over. Now over 200 million doses of vaccine have been injected in Biden’s first 100 days in office.
Turning to the Republican rebuttal, and at the risk of touching on touchy subjects, the fact is, I believe, that the Republican Party, in an effort to blunt accusations that it has become the party of white supremacy, produced Sen. Scott to assure us “it ain’t so.” The data strongly indicates it is so, but OK, what else could we expect from their chosen mouthpiece? Other than the standard Trumpist party lines, he had no real data to offer in support of his gaslighting generalizations.
Scott assailed President Biden with the all-too-familiar Republican trope that Biden promised to unite the country, be bi-partisan, “lower the temperature” etc. and so on. Ad nauseum. “We need,” Scott said, with rhetorical flourish:
policies and progress that bring us closer together. But three months in, the actions of the president and his party are pulling us further and further apart.
I won’t waste your time tonight with finger-pointing or partisan bickering. You can get that on TV anytime you want. I want to have an honest conversation about common sense and common ground. About this feeling that our nation is sliding off its shared foundation, and how we move forward together.
But first, a word about me, me and me. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. But, surprise, God saved me. And He will save you too if, four or five paragraphs later, we had opened our schools the way other (unnamed) countries did.
Any time a Republican politician tells you he/she wants to have an “honest conversation,” secure your wallet and your mind. Scott saying he’s not going to engaged in finger-pointing or partisan bickering is just cognitive priming in the hope you won’t notice that is exactly what he is doing.
The English translation of Scott’s rebuttal is simple enough: the stimulus bill Biden got passed was not the bill Republicans wanted so we voted against it. “Closer together” means doing things the Republican way, period: it’s not bi-partisan unless it’s the Republican agenda. If Democrats did things our way, we’d be all in on bipartisanship. But if you won’t let us control all the legislation, we’ll just whine about lack of bipartisanship and vote ‘no’ on everything.
I evaluated his statement in categories, as a primer to what was really going on. His statement was comprised of 1908 words in 39 paragraphs (New York Times version of transcript).
My categories were:
Racial messaging (overt or covert)
Trigger words/phrases & religious messaging for Republican base
Racial messaging accounted for 14 paragraphs and 778 words, or 36 percent of the total paragraphs and 40 percent of the total words in Scott’s statement. The central message was “I’m Black and I have suffered as a Black man in America so you can trust me when I tell you Republicans are not racist and neither is America.” Perhaps, but likely not, accidentally, he used one of Donald Trump’s standard lines, “believe me,” and claimed his efforts to fund police body cameras and his “even bigger police reform proposal” were blocked by Democrats who even rejected debate by using the filibuster. Implication: the real racists are Democrats.
The problem with that song-and-dance number is that Scott’s legislation was rejected by Democrats in 2020 because it did not include bans on chokeholds or “no-knock” search warrants and did not address qualified immunity that prevents effective lawsuits against police officers using excessive force. Democrats saw the bills as non-starters because Republicans made clear that the protective umbrella of qualified immunity was non-negotiable. Our way or the highway. So much for bipartisanship.
My second category includes classical Republican talking points/trigger words & phrases/religious references to appeal to the GOP base. These accounted for a small share of the total words, but were center cut from the Donald Trump playbook and calculated to get the biggest rise from the base:
“Even more taxing, even more spending, to put Washington even more in the middle of your life — from the cradle to college”
“Weakening our southern borders and creating a crisis is not compassionate”
“The beauty of the American dream is that families get to define it for themselves”
“Washington schemes or socialist dreams”
“America is not a racist country”
“Washington power grab”
Details were sparse but when you’re throwing fresh meat at the mob, you don’t need them.
Scott’s assault on the bona fides of Biden’s appeal to unity and bipartisanship accounted for 16 paragraphs and 621 words. Race-related messaging thus won the day as a share of Scott’s statement.
He also played the victim card. Since he remains a disciple of Donald Trump, asserting victimhood is hardly a surprising move. It accounted for six paragraphs and 278 words.
Finally, Scott closed out his statement with a blessing, comprised of 2 paragraphs and 141 words. This seems bizarre because while Scott is reportedly an evangelical Protestant, he is not ordained as a minister.
So, there you have it. No doubt the Republican base will love Scott and believe that he effectively showed up President Biden. More important, however, is the question how this struggle is going to play out with the American population as a whole. Biden has shown the country what is possible, what they can have if they have the courage to get it. Republicans will continue to fulfill their role of obstruction with a side of commitment to the wealthiest Americans whose financial welfare is the prime mover of Republican philosophy and policy.
If Republicans really wanted bipartisanship, they would stop saying ‘no,’ to almost everything Democrats propose. They have now undergone their standard re-conversion back to “conservative” principles, by demanding smaller government, less regulation and rejection of science. With those as their touchstone, there is little prospect for bipartisan solutions to anything resembling a real problem. Biden has offered the people a roadmap to a future of possibilities and promise for better lives in an increasing complex and uncompromising world. The question now is: how will they choose?