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Regardless of whether or not President Donald Trump wins his re-election this year, the Republican Party will soon be grappling with one burning and absolutely essential question: what’s next?
If Trump wins this November, he will be president for the next four years, but he — like all presidents — will be a lame duck just two years into the term, as the next scramble for the White House begins.
If he loses, that schedule will be moved ahead significantly, as Republicans attempt to pick up the pieces after the loss, counter the agenda of President Kamala Harris — er, I mean Joe Biden — and position themselves to win again into the future.
With all due respect to Vice President Mike Pence, I don’t think it is very likely that he ends up leading the next iteration of the party in either scenario. He is a good man, but he is far too conventional, far too passive, and far too reflective of the past of the party to truly be the right choice going forward.
The post-Trump Republican Party, if it wants to have a true, durable impact on the country, is going to need to find a way to appeal to the unique cross-section of voters that Trump was able to capture while also presenting a more unifying and cathartic argument to voters.
That is a tall order. It requires someone to both reflect the frustrations of blue collar, post-industrialized America, while also speaking and appealing to a younger, more diverse, more urban and suburban population. Trying to pull that off is next to impossible.
And yet, on Monday, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina stepped into the light and demonstrated what the future could — and should — look like for Republicans.
Scott has been somebody on my radar since he was a relatively anonymous congressman and was appointed to Jim DeMint’s vacated Senate seat in late 2012 by then South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. He would go on to win a special election for the seat in 2014, and then he earned a full term in his own right in 2016.
Scott is the first African American to be a U.S. senator from the southern United States since Reconstruction, and was one of only three black senators in the 113th Congress. Since originally being elected to Congress in 2011, Scott has established himself as a deeply serious legislator, giving thoughtful consideration to very difficult issues and attempting to find consensus to get things done.
He is moderate in temperament and personality, but is firmly conservative, a combination which is quite rare in a modern political world where one’s ideology seems to be proven by how aggressively strident they behave.
Nowhere was his seriousness shown more than in the wake of protests over the killing of George Floyd. As mass protests broke out among people calling for reform to police and politicians left and right devolved into hyperbolic fits of tribal rhetoric, Scott stepped forward to propose a very reasonable compromise bill that took the demands for reform seriously.
Predictably, his bill ended up going nowhere because, as he put it on Monday night, certain members of Congress were more interested in perpetuating the issue for their own political gain, than they were in actually trying to solve a problem.
There are dozens more examples of Scott being one of the only adults in the room in Washington, but his strength as a future leader is about so much more than his inherent pragmatism. His strength is built around his ability to acknowledge America’s shortcomings, while still demonstrating all that makes this country strong.
“My grandfather’s 99th birthday would have been tomorrow,” he said Monday. “Growing up, he had to cross the street if a white person was coming. He suffered the indignity of being forced out of school as a third grader to pick cotton, and never learned to read or write. Yet, he lived to see his grandson become the first African American to be elected to both the United States House and Senate. Our family went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime. And that’s why I believe the next American century can be better than the last.”
He spoke of human potential, aspiration and inspiration. To hear him speak Monday was to hear someone who loved this country and what it represents, even as it struggles through increasingly bitter division and conflict.
That is the message that America needs to hear, and it is the only one that has any hope of bringing people back together. I hope it is the message of the future.
Matthew 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.