Two high-profile Republican members of Congress who stand at the forefront of the effort to rebuild the party after a stinging presidential defeat delivered speeches Tuesday night aimed at turning the page with a fresh emphasis on inclusion and a renewed focus on growing the middle class.
“Nothing represents how special America is more than our middle class. And our challenge and our opportunity now is to create the conditions that allow it not just to survive, but to grow,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), the Leadership Award recipient at a dinner hosted by the Jack Kemp Foundation, a charitable nonprofit organization named for the late congressman and Housing and Urban Development secretary.
The keynote speaker was Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), Mitt Romney’s running mate, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, and a disciple of Kemp’s. Ryan focused his remarks on poverty, an issue he broached on the campaign trail and one he appears keen to discuss in the future.
“Our poverty rates are the highest in a generation. Of the millions of children born into hardship, fewer and fewer are able to escape it,” Ryan said.
The speeches came four weeks after President Obama defeated Romney to win a second term, an event that prompted soul-searching among conservatives left without a clear standard-bearer. Rubio and Ryan each pointed toward the future in their remarks, with the latter sounding bipartisan notes reflecting the realities of divided government, even as he defended the pillars of conservatism.
“We’ve got to set aside partisan considerations in favor of one overriding concern: How do we work together to repair the economy, to get people back on their feet?” Ryan said.
After Romney’s defeat, many Republicans quickly distanced themselves from the GOP nominee, decrying what they saw as divisive rhetoric evident in his comment to donors after the election that Obama won by bestowing “gifts” on certain segments of the electorate. Ryan appeared eager to avoid divisive remarks Tuesday night.
“Both parties tend to divide Americans into ‘our voters’ and ‘their voters.’ Let’s be really clear: Republicans must steer far clear of that trap. We must speak to the aspirations and anxieties of every American,” he said.
Rubio said the federal government can play an important role in encouraging economic growth, but he cautioned that “big government is not effective government.” He hit on familiar themes championed by conservatives, including education reform and expanding domestic energy production.
“We need to allow charter schools and other innovative schools to flourish. The key to that is empowering parents. Parents should be the ultimate decision-makers on where their children go to school,” Rubio said.
With Romney underperforming Sen. John McCain’s 2008 national performance among Hispanic voters, some Republicans think the party must embrace the issue of immigration reform. Rubio didn’t devote much time to the topic on Tuesday, but he did mention his parents’ journey from Cuba to the United States.
“Whether or not the journey my parents made is still possible to all who are willing to work for it — that’s going to decide whether we decline or remain that special place,” he said.
Rubio and Ryan are rising stars in the GOP. They are both in their early 40s and are frequently mentioned as potential 2016 presidential candidates, something Ryan poked fun at with a joke about the two states that vote first in the presidential nominating process.
“You’re joining an elite group of past recipients for this award — two of us, so far,” Ryan told Rubio at the top of his speech. “I’ll see you at the reunion dinner — table for two. Know any good diners in Iowa or New Hampshire?”
The speeches came as Washington has become seized by wrangling over the “fiscal cliff.” Congress and the White House have less than a month to strike a deal to avert automatic tax increases and deep spending cuts that are set to take effect on Jan. 1, threatening to devastate a fragile economy.
Lawmakers and the White House appear to be at an impasse, with GOP leaders panning a proposal offered last week by Obama and the White House rejecting a Republican counteroffer presented this week. Democrats have pressed for increasing tax rates of the the wealthiest Americans as a part of any deal, while Republicans have opposed increasing rates, saying that doing so would harm small businesses.
In his speech, Rubio delivered a sharp rebuttal of Obama’s proposed tax increase, arguing that upping the rates on the wealthy would adversely affect the middle class.
“For me, it’s about the fact that the tax increases he wants would fail to make even a small dent in the debt, but it would hurt middle class businesses and the people who work for them,” Rubio said.