Rep. Paul Ryan’s speech to the Economic Club of Chicago this morning is an able defense of his own budget and his vision for reforming entitlements, but at bottom it is a defense of free-market economics and the intellectual underpinnings of modern conservatism.

The latter was not built on green-eye-shade OMB directors but on the belief that limited government and responsible public finances will unleash prosperity. He puts it this way (from prepared text):

[M]any in Washington – including the President – are really arguing over who to hurt and how best to manage the decline of our nation. It is a framework that accepts ever-higher taxes and bureaucratically rationed health care as givens. I call it the shared scarcity mentality. The missing ingredient is economic growth. … [Our plan] aims to do two things: to put our budget on a path to balance, and to put our economy on a path to prosperity. These goals go hand in hand. Stable government finances are essential to a growing economy, and economic growth is essential to balancing the budget.”

In contrasting Obama’s “shared scarcity” and his own “path to prosperity,” he explains the difference in the approach to Medicare:

Our budget makes no changes for those in or near retirement, and offers future generations a strengthened Medicare program they can count on, with guaranteed coverage options, less help for the wealthy, and more help for the poor and the sick… Our plan is to give seniors the power to deny business to inefficient providers. Their plan is to give government the power to deny care to seniors.

In contrast to Newt Gingrich’s swipe on Sunday, this is not a man looking to pull out welfare by the roots, but rather to prune and shape it for the long term. But he isn’t shy about pointing out that the president’s plan amounts to rationing:

In a recent speech he gave in response to our budget, President Obama outlined a deficit-reduction approach that, in my view, defines shared scarcity. The President’s plan begins with trillions of dollars in higher taxes, and it relies on a plan to control costs in Medicare that would give a board of 15 unelected bureaucrats in Washington the power to deeply ration care. This would disrupt the lives of those currently in retirement and lead to waiting lists for today’s seniors.

Likewise on taxes, Ryan is clear that Obama is interested in hiking taxes by $1.5 trillion while he is looking for a “simpler, flatter, fairer, more globally competitive, and less burdensome” tax code. And he disabuses the audience of the notion that the problem is a failure to extract more from the rich: “Further, the math is clear – the government cannot close its enormous fiscal gap simply by taxing the rich. This gap grows by trillions of dollars each year, representing tens of trillions in unfunded promises to future generations that the government has no plan to keep.”

He gives a thumbs up to House Speaker John Boehner’s approach to the debt limit (“For every dollar the President wants to raise the debt ceiling, we can show him plenty of ways to cut far more than a dollar of spending. Given the magnitude of our debt burden, the size of the spending cuts should exceed the size of the President’s debt limit increase.”) And he is withering in his criticism of the class warfare rhetoric propagated by the president and fanned by eager liberal pundits:

Class warfare may be clever politics, but it is terrible economics. Redistributing wealth never creates more of it. ... Sowing social unrest and class envy makes America weaker, not stronger. Playing one group against another only distracts us from the true sources of inequity in this country – corporate welfare that enriches the powerful, and empty promises that betray the powerless. . . .

If we succumb to this view that our problems are bigger than we are – if we surrender more control over our economy to the governing class – then we are choosing shared scarcity over renewed prosperity, and managed decline over economic growth. That’s the real class warfare that threatens us – a class of governing elites picking winners and losers, and determining our destinies for us.

The speech is remarkable in several respects. First, Ryan is exceptionally civil to the president, who had been remarkably uncivil to him in the George Washington University speech. He acknowledges that the president inherited a mess and that the budget failure was bipartisan. And then he largely ignores him. He is arguing for principles that conflict with the president’s, not against the president personally. Liberals want civil discourse? This is it.

Second, he is upbeat in a way most conservatives aren’t these days. He concludes:

Nobody ever got rich betting against the United States of America, and I’m not about to start.

Time and again, just when it looked like the era of American exceptionalism was coming to a close …we got back up. We brushed ourselves off. And we got back to work – rebuilding our country, advancing our society, and moving the boundaries of opportunity ever forward.

We can do it again. America was knocked down by a recession. We are threatened by a rising tide of debt. But we are not knocked out. We are America. And it is time to prove the doubters wrong once more – to show them that this exceptional nation is once again up to the challenge.

And finally, Ryan brings with him his slides and a granular knowledge of the budget. He’s more fluent in the “math” and therefore more capable of rebutting the president’s budget than any other Republican on the scene.

In a sense, this is the model of modern conservatism first championed by William F. Buckley Jr. and transformed into a governing mandate by Ronald Reagan. It is optimistic, cheerful, gracious and reasoned. It is based on a belief in markets and individual liberty, not on the wisdom of government planners.

Ryan’s got the substance and the temperament. Why is it he’s not running for president? He thinks he’s not ready? Oh, puleez; he’s the most qualified Republican out there to confront the president and make the case for conservative principles.