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.
"Some say that our problem is that the American people have changed. That too many people want things from government," he said. "But I am still convinced that the overwhelming majority of our people just want what my parents had - a chance."
Assailing the "opportunity gap" that he said is growing in America, Rubio said "millions of Americans worry that they may never achieve middle class prosperity and stability and that their children will be trapped as well with the same life and the same problems." He blamed a lack of jobs on a weak economy and a "skills shortage" that has left many without the skills they need to perform jobs that would keep them firmly in the middle class.
Rubio called for lawmakers to "reform and save" Medicare in order to slow the growth of the national debt, simplification of the tax code to help grow business, and limits on "excessive regulations." He said he opposed President Obama'snot to protect millionaires or fulfill a pledge but because "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."
Rubio also called for expanded domestic energy output, a "clear monetary rule" from the Federal Reserve Board, and a move toward health care Flexible Savings Accounts. He did not specifically call for the repeal of the national health care law. He discussed education at length, proposing a corporate federal tax credit and noting he was only able to pay his student loans off last year thanks to book sales.
Rubio took the same tone as Ryan when it came to entitlement programs, arguing they should be protected but "reformed."
"[L]et's protect our nation's safety net programs," he said. "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. But these programs must be reformed to enhance family stability, financial opportunity, education and a culture of work."
Rubio said the federal government had to do what it can to "confront societal breakdown" and help young people who grow up in unstable environments to rise above their circumstances, adding that Americans should look to "churches and faith-based organizations in the community as part of the solution."
Rubio discussed his own family, noting that his father grew up poor and his mother "lived in a home with dirt floors in rural Cuba, raised by a disabled father who struggled to bring food home every night." Noting that the U.S. government "helped me and my siblings pay for college," he said that had he been raised in a country other than the United States, "I would probably have been a very opinionated bartender."
Rubio argued the path out of poverty has gotten harder. To address that, he said that government should play "a supporting role: to help create the conditions that enable prosperity in our private economy."
"That's a crucial role but a necessarily limited one," he continued. "It can't substitute for what it is meant to enable--a thriving free economy. It is not the ever expanding reach of government, but rather having access to the benefits of thriving economy that allows the poor to rise into the middle class. Not by making rich people poorer, but by making poor people richer. To do that we need a limited and effective government. "
At the outset of his remarks, Ryan made reference to the fact that both he and Rubio are being watched as potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates. He noted that the two men are the only two to have been awarded the Kemp Foundation Leadership Award, which Ryan received last year and Rubio received on Tuesday.
"You're joining an elite group of past recipients - so far, it's just me and you," Ryan said. "I'll see you at the reunion dinner - table for two. Know any good diners in Iowa or New Hampshire?"
He added: "I'm sure the press won't read too much into that."