Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio - two men at the center of the discussion of potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates - tonight laid out their vision for the party's future in remarks seemingly designed to move the party away from Mitt Romney's controversial "47 percent" remarks during the presidential campaign.
After stressing that he was "proud of the campaign Mitt Romney and I ran," Ryan, the 2012 Republican VP nominee delivering his first speech since he and Romney lost on election night, focused on the importance of giving Americans the opportunity to "escape from poverty" and move up the socioeconomic ladder.
"When 40 percent of all children born into the lowest income quintile never rise above it, what does it say about our country?" the chairman of the House Budget Committee asked at the Kemp Foundation Leadership Award Dinner at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. He argued that schools, families and communities are not doing a good enough job in providing a path out of poverty and that the economy "is failing to provide basic security, much less rising wages."
Ryan went on to argue that the GOP has to go beyond "representing the aspirations of our nation's risk-takers."
"When our neighbors are struggling, we look out for one another," Ryan said. "We do that best through our families and communities - and our party must stand for making them stronger. 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."
Referencing the late congressman and 1996 Republican VP nominee Jack Kemp, Ryan said, "Jack just hated the idea that any part of America could be written off." In his secretly-recorded
"[M]y job is not to worry about those people," Romney added. "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
Tonight, Ryan said American exceptionalism is grounded in the fact that most Americans do not believe that the worst off have a path to a better life.
"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. I believe we can turn the engines of upward mobility back on, so that no one is left out from the promise of America. But it's going to require a bold departure from the approach that government has taken for the last five decades."
Ryan spoke broadly about what that "bold departure" would look like, though he largely steered clear of specifics. He suggested the government should stop spending as much on "bloated, top-down anti-poverty programs," saying a big-spending approach "created a debilitating culture of dependency."
Hailing welfare reform, he said, "[w]e haven't applied the welfare-reform mindset with equal vigor across the spectrum of anti-poverty programs. In most cases, we're still trying to measure compassion by how much we spend - not by how many people we help."
Ryan, who has advocated major cuts to entitlement programs, called for "a stronger safety net - one that protects the most vulnerable and promotes self-reliance," an "end to the chronic inequalities in our education system," and "economic growth through free enterprise."
"Of course, not every problem disappears through the workings of the free market alone," Ryan continued.
"Americans are a compassionate people. And there's a consensus in this country about our obligations to the most vulnerable. Those obligations are beyond dispute. The real debate is how best we can meet them. It's whether they are better met by private groups or by government - by voluntary action or by government action. The truth is, there has to be a balance."
Rubio, speaking after Ryan, also took aim at Romney's "47 percent" comments without specifically mentioning them.