Senator Tim Scott, giving the Republican response to President Joe Biden’s maiden speech to Congress, accused Democrats of using race as a political weapon.
The US Senate’s only black Republican said it was his party that had led the US out of its pandemic struggles and toward a hopeful future.
Mr Scott, from South Carolina, in his nationally televised rebuttal of Mr Biden’s address, belittled the new president’s initial priorities, aimed at combating the deadly virus and spurring the economy, as wasteful expansions of big government.
“We should be expanding options and opportunities for all families,” said Mr Scott, who preaches a message of optimism while remaining a loyal supporter of former President Donald Trump, “not throwing money at certain issues because Democrats think they know best”.
Citing the partisan battle over Mr Biden’s 1.9 trillion US dollar Covid-19 relief bill, which Congress approved over unanimous Republican opposition, Mr Scott said: “We need policies and progress that bring us closer together.
“But three months in, the actions of the president and his party are pulling us further apart.”
Mr Scott saved some of his sharpest comments for the fraught subject of race.
Mr Scott recounted his rise from a low-income family and “the pain” of repeatedly being pulled over by police while driving but said: “Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country.”
Mr Biden and other Democrats have cited institutional racism as a major national problem.
While acknowledging that “our healing is not finished”, Mr Scott suggested that Democrats and liberals have turned the race issue upside down.
“It’s backwards to fight discrimination with different discrimination,” he said, without providing examples of what he meant.
“And it’s wrong to try to use our painful past to dishonestly shut down debates in the present.”
He added: “Race is not a political weapon to settle every issue the way one side wants.”
Mr Biden’s address came three months into a presidency that has seen Republicans repeatedly accuse him of abandoning his campaign pledge to seek bipartisan compromises.
While Mr Biden cited accomplishments and goals in his own speech, “America is on the move again”, he said, Mr Scott said it was Republicans who had bolstered the economy and began to tame the pandemic.
“This should be a joyful springtime for our nation,” said Mr Scott, citing the Trump administration’s role in helping spur vaccine development and beginning a revival of the staggered economy.
“This administration inherited a tide that had already turned.
“The coronavirus is on the run!”
Mr Scott cited low unemployment rates for minorities before the pandemic struck last year, calling it “the most inclusive economy in my lifetime”.
And he praised Republican efforts including tax breaks to encourage business investments in low-income communities.
“Our best future won’t come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams,” he said, echoing the Republicans’ oft-repeated theme that Democrats are pushing far-left plans.
“It will come from you — the American people.”
Mr Scott has long embraced themes of opportunity and a cheerful optimism that were conservative calling cards during the Reagan era.
He retold the story of a grandfather who left grade school to pick cotton and led a lifetime of illiteracy, his own childhood living in a single bedroom with his single mother and brother and nearly failing out of high school.
Mr Scott said his family went “from cotton to Congress in one lifetime.
“So I am more than hopeful, I am confident, that our finest hour is yet to come.”
Those messages could make Mr Scott a positive messenger for the Republicans in what could otherwise be a divisive 2022 election campaign, when the party has high hopes of winning control of the House and perhaps the Senate.