Feud between Biden and Rick Scott turns personal

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., heads to an interview during the third day of the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022, in Orlando.

The first time Sen. Rick Scott tried to reach out to Joe Biden after he became president, the White House hung up on him.

Or so goes Scott’s retelling of the episode in December, when he angrily tweeted about seeking the president’s help on the fate of a well-known opposition leader in Cuba who was believed to be detained by the government.

Just a few months later, Scott is calling Biden “incoherent” and “incapacitated” and demanding his resignation while the president — after delivering a lengthy speech this week with multiple broadsides against the Florida Republican’s policy ideas — responded to Scott’s insults by saying, “I think the man has a problem.”

It’s the story of a political battle turning personal. In recent weeks, Biden and a panoply of White House officials have systematically elevated the first-term senator from Florida as a central GOP boogeyman, seizing on his 11-point conservative policy platform that the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has explicitly rejected — in part because he feared Democrats would target it exactly as they are doing.

But for now, each side sees a political advantage in going after the other, and because Scott is widely believed to have presidential ambitions, their back-and-forth could provide a preview of 2024 campaign rhetoric.

White House officials — eyeing language in Scott’s plan that they say could mean tax hikes for millions of Americans — are eager to create a contrast with Republicans in a midterm year that would otherwise be a referendum on the president’s performance. While other Republicans have avoided coming up with a specific platform, Scott, who heads the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, has said voters deserve to know what the GOP will do if it takes power.

As Biden’s poll numbers remain low, he is increasingly taking aim at Republicans — and Scott has given him an appealing target.

“Senator Rick Scott of Wisconsin, a member of the Senate Republican leadership, laid it all out in a plan. It’s the ultra-MAGA agenda,” Biden said in a speech Tuesday, incorrectly identifying Scott’s home state. “Their plan is to raise taxes on 75 million American families, over 95 percent of whom make less than $100,000 a year, total income. The average tax increase would be about $1,500 per family.”

Biden added: “They’ve got it backwards, in my view.”

The president was referring to an item in Scott’s plan that says, “All Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game, even if a small amount. Currently, over half of Americans pay no income tax.”

Scott and his inner circle are also enjoying the standoff putting him directly at odds with the Democratic president, especially as Biden remains highly unpopular in Scott’s home state of Florida.

Asked why he thought the White House was singling him out, Scott said in an interview, “Because I have a plan. It’s real simple. I put out my ideas of how we need to rescue this country. He doesn’t have a plan.”

Scott this week challenged Biden to a debate in Florida over inflation and released a television ad from his personal political operation that gloated: “One thing for sure — Rick Scott’s Rescue America plan has gotten under Joe Biden’s skin.”

But Scott has gone further than many elected Republicans, accusing Biden of incompetence in a personally insulting, unsubstantiated way, albeit one that could resonate with fierce Republican partisans. “Joe Biden is unwell. He’s unfit for office. He’s incoherent, incapacitated and confused,” Scott said in a news release Tuesday. “He doesn’t know where he is half the time.”

In the interview, Scott added, “He’s confused. He doesn’t understand; he just wants to blame everybody. Here’s a guy that we all know can’t do this. He can’t do anything about inflation. You know, he ought to do what a businessperson does — quit.”

Scott insisted that his tenacious focus on Biden has nothing to do with his own White House ambitions: “I have no plan to, you know, forward, to run for president. I’ve said that all along.”

Biden was a longtime senator and still adheres to senatorial courtesy. But he’s found it easier to use Scott as a foil because the two men don’t have much of a relationship and have had little direct interaction during their time in public office, according to aides.

Scott attended an event with Biden in South Florida last July, as they and other officials met with first responders and family members of the victims of a condo building collapse in Surfside, Fla. The two men also had minimal but amiable chats during National Governors Association dinners at the White House during the Obama administration, when Scott was Florida governor and Biden was vice president, according to a Scott aide.

Then there were the unreturned — at least initially — calls in December about Cuban activist José Daniel Ferrer, whose plight Scott sought to emphasize to Biden as he called through the White House switchboard, then again the next day, when Scott insists the White House hung up on him. A White House official said of the incident that “we aren’t aware of what he’s talking about,” and later that day, Scott connected with an official from the National Security Council.

Since Biden took office, Scott has been needling him like a persistent gadfly, issuing weekly reports on “Biden’s Inflation Crisis” and warning since February 2021 that the administration’s ambitious coronavirus spending package could trigger rising prices.

But it wasn’t until the release of Scott’s “11 point plan to rescue America” in late February that the White House began to seriously engage with Scott, who as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee is charged with regaining the Senate majority for the GOP. The “skin in the game” item about taxes has been a favorite target for Biden.

About 50 percent of Americans on the bottom half of the income distribution do not pay federal income taxes because they do not earn enough to have a liability or because they receive tax credits. Scott and his aides have since tried to clarify his intent — that his proposal would not affect retirees nor those in the workforce — and admitted privately that the language in the plan could have been clearer.

Scott’s plan also calls for sunsetting all federal laws every five years, which Democrats say means that popular programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid would be routinely under threaten of not being renewed. “Now, if I hadn’t seen it in writing, I’d think somebody is making this up,” Biden said Tuesday.

Some Republicans say privately they worry that Scott has needlessly handed Biden and the Democrats an advantage. McConnell publicly distanced himself from the Scott agenda, though some rank-and-file Republicans have been warm to it, and Scott was pointedly criticized by others in McConnell’s leadership circle for what they saw as a self-inflicted political wound.

Publicly, GOP officials and activists say no one could take seriously the notion that Democrats are the party that will keep taxes low. Still, “Rick Scott should remove his tax plank,” said John Kartch, a spokesman for the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform. “Nobody supports it, but no Republican should have to waste even five seconds batting away the Biden assertion.”

The White House has been on the attack against Scott’s proposal for weeks, but Biden’s speech Tuesday on inflation and the “ultra-MAGA” Republicans marked his most pointed comments yet. One White House official said Biden will continue to hammer home the policy distinctions between the two parties in the run-up to the midterm elections.

It’s a contrast the administration hopes is a potent one, particularly when the message is sandwiched between a series of moves by Biden to combat rising prices, such as releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, another White House official said. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe internal administration strategy.

Photo for The Washington Post by Oliver Contreras
President Joe Biden speaks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. U.S. retail gasoline and diesel prices rallied to a record just ahead of the nation’s summer driving season, a challenge for Biden and the Federal Reserve as they face the fastest inflation in decades.

The first White House official said the administration was not waging an ad hominem attack on Scott, but that it was fair game to criticize the specific policy proposals of a Senate GOP leader, especially because other top Republicans have avoided saying what they will do if they regain power.

“There isn’t an alternative plan they’ve put forward, so it’s either this, put together by the person who is leading the effort to win back the Senate, or nothing,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week. “If they have an alternative plan, we would welcome them putting it forward.”

White House officials also say privately that Medicare is a sensitive issue for Scott because years ago a for-profit hospital company he once ran had to pay $1.7 billion in federal fines because of Medicare fraud and related wrongdoing.

Senior Senate Republicans say publicly that Biden’s election-year rhetoric will be politically ineffective. The Scott aide said a fight over taxes and inflation would be “nothing but upside for every Republican.”

“I know they’re going to try and connect the dots on that,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said of the White House messaging on Scott’s plan. “It’s in their interest to do that, because they need an issue to be on the offensive and they don’t have one right now. They’re just taking a lot of punches.”

But the defense from fellow Senate Republicans only goes so far. When asked if he endorsed Scott’s plan, Thune, the No. 2 GOP leader, responded, “I would have a different campaign message in my campaign.”