Ryan, Rubio reboot: leaving behind “failures of the past”
Welcome to the new Republican generation.
As former Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and GOP rising star Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) addressed guests at the Jack Kemp Leadership Award Dinner Tuesday night, they worked overtime to cast a new vision for the party that emphasized embrace of Americans of every rank and status and common-sense reforms to welfare programs and education while eschewing the mis-messaging and failure to connect that may have contributed to the party’s loss in November.
The dinner, held at Washington, D.C.’s famous Mayflower Hotel, was a who’s who of conservative heavyweights including Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and rougly 10 other lawmakers past and present.
The first mission for Ryan and Rubio, as two of the party’s most prominent young leaders, was to distance themselves from the Romney campaign’s most damaging moments: a secretly taped fundraiser in which candidate Mitt Romney appeared to dispense with the “47 percent” of Americans who don’t pay income tax as unreachable by Republicans; and, following the election, a widely panned remark by Romney attributing President Barack Obama’s re-election to “gifts” made to key voting demographics.
Ryan, the Kemp award recipient of 2011, took immediate aim at the 47-percent gaffe.
“Both parties tend to divide Americans into ‘our voters’ and ‘their voters,’” he said. “But Republicans must steer far clear of that trap. We must speak to the aspirations and anxieties of every American.”
The banquet attendees responded with fervent applause.
While Ryan said he was proud of the campaign that he and Romney had run, he didn’t hesitate to acknowledge that the team’s communication with the nation had fallen short.
“We have a compassionate vision based on ideas that work – but sometimes we don’t do a good job of laying out that vision. We need to do better,” he said.
Ryan isolated rising American poverty rates as an area where Republican ideals of freedom and opportunity could triumph, citing the successes of 1990s welfare reform as a starting point.
“Welfare reform worked because it encouraged the best in people. It appealed to their desire to shape their own destiny. And it helped get government out of the business of fostering dependency,” he said.
Government, Ryan said, must work to foster community, private efforts, and civil society, not to squelch them.
Ryan laced his speech with self-deprecating barbs of humor that acknowledged his ticket’s loss and the reporters in the back of the room, hungry for a glimpse into 2016 political aspirations.
“You’re joining an elite group of past recipients – so far, it’s just me and you,” he quipped to Rubio. “I’ll see you at the reunion dinner – table for two. Know any good diners in Iowa or New Hampshire?”
Later, as Ryan gave tribute to the late Republican congressman Jack Kemp, his mentor, he offered a rueful comparison.
“Now Jack and I share something else in common: We both used to be the next vice president of the United States,” he said.
But the most biting humor was saved for Obama, as he needled the president’s habit of blaming the prior administration for the nation’s economic woes.
“It’s true that President Obama won re-election, and I congratulate him on his victory,” Ryan said. “But on January 20th, he’ll face a stagnant economy and a fiscal mess. You might even say he’ll inherit these problems.”
Rubio, the night’s award recipient and a subject of many Republican hopes and speculations for 2016, delivered a dense and broad-ranging speech reminiscent of his foreign policy address to the Brookings Institution as a short-list candidate for the vice presidential nomination.
If Ryan cast a vision for the party, Rubio laid out a goal-filled policy roadmap.
He touched on free-market healthcare reform, jobs programs, tax policy, education, the Keystone Pipeline, and monetary policy, making only a few light quips before getting down to business.
Rubio made it clear he was not among the rolls of Republican lawmakers looking to compromise with the president by raising tax revenues.
“It isn’t about a pledge. It isn’t about protecting millionaires and billionaires,” Rubio said. “For me, its about the fact that the tax increases he wants would fail to make even a small dent in the debt but would hurt middle class businesses and the people who work for them.”
He spoke warmly of reviving the middle class by helping to match skills with ready workers and cutting back regulation.
“The more expensive a regulation is, the less money a business has left to give raises or hire new people,” Rubio said. “So we need to have a balanced approach to regulations.”
Rubio received hearty applause as he spoke about his plans to promote charter schools and support school choice, and college scholarships for low-income students.
He got chuckles from the crowd when he talked of paying off his own student loan debt with sales of his new book, An American Son, “a perfect Christmas gift and available on Amazon for $11.99.”
While Rubio cast himself as a believer in small government, he repeatedly emphasized that he did see a role for government in social programs, distancing himself from hard-line conservatives, libertarian-influenced lawmakers, as well as a “47 percent” mentality.
“Let’s protect our nation’s safety net programs. Not as a way of life, but as a way to help those who have failed to stand up and try again, and of course to help those who cannot help themselves,” he said. “…Government has a role to play. And we must make sure it does its part. But it’s a supporting role: to help create the conditions that enable prosperity in our private economy.”
In closing, he reminded the audience of his own humble upbringing as a child of Cuban immigrant parents and his path to success through hard work and American opportunity.
“In the kitchens of our hotels; in the landscaping crews that work in our neighborhoods; in the late night janitorial shifts that clean our offices–there you will find the dreams America was built on,” he said. “There you will find the promise of tomorrow.”
Rubio and Ryan, who was re-elected to his Wisconsin congressional seat in November, will both return to Capitol Hill to grapple with a slate of legislative crises due to hit at the end of the year. But they are both expected to remain prominent faces in the Republican party as the GOP hones a new, winning image calculated to woo back voters and to return to classic party ideals.