Recently, Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s Republican governor, made an announcement of historic significance. The governor said she was filling the seat in the United States Senate being vacated by Jim DeMint by appointing Tim Scott, a 47-year-old African American congressman with strong conservative credentials.
With his upgrade to the Senate, Scott becomes the first Black senator from South Carolina and the only Republican to serve in that body since Edward Brooke of Massachusetts left the Senate in 1979. To say the least, Scott has the opportunity to become a major figure in the nation’s political landscape.
The appointment makes Scott only the seventh African American to have ever served in the United States Senate. He will run in a special election in 2014 to serve the final two years of DeMint’s term. If Scott wins, he will be the first African American to be popularly elected to the Senate from a Southern state.
There is a lot of history here and the potential for Scott to become an outstanding senator. But unless he unshackles himself from some of the right-wing zealotry he has embraced so enthusiastically, he is more likely to relegate himself to footnote status.
Still, Scott’s story is a compelling one. He was raised by a single mother and considered himself a lost youth who, by his own admission, had difficulty with school. It was the owner of a Chick-fil-A franchise, Scott maintains, who mentored him and helped to mold his conservative worldview.
He went on to work as a financial advisor and to own an insurance agency. He served one term in the South Carolina General Assembly. He was elected to Congress in the Republican electoral wave of 2010 with support from the Tea Party. He is a fiscal and cultural conservative who ran on a platform of cutting federal spending and reducing taxes.
To say the least, Scott’s views are decidedly out of sync with those of progressive Americans and vastly out of step with most African-American voters. He is an opponent of the Affordable Care Act, profoundly opposed to abortion and staunchly anti-union.
There have been so few Black members of the Senate over the years that the presence of a new member of that club is cause for pride and excitement among African Americans. But Scott, alas, will be forced to earn that–and it is doubtful that he will even try. He is likely to vote in a manner that brings delight to those responsible for his political ascendancy: the right-wing Tea Party segment of the Republican Party. They are the political forces he surely believes he will need in 2014, when he runs for his seat.
And thus, there is a cautionary note that must accompany this historic milestone. Unless Scott somehow manages to expand his perspective beyond Tea Party dogma, he is likely to symbolize all the historical heft of, say, Clarence Thomas. He will become better known for what he opposes than for the solutions he champions. In short, this is an appointment that stands to represent a missed opportunity at making history in a meaningful way.