Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) both spoke Tuesday night at the Jack Kemp Foundation dinner. Both may be candidates for president in 2016. Both are visible, articulate spokesmen for conservatives.

The late Jack Kemp
(Stephan Savoia — Associated Press Photo)

Both avoided the particulars of the fiscal cliff battle. Both avoided social issues and immigration reform, although Rubio spoke as he often does of the immigrant experience that defines his persona and frames his policy vision. (“Our story is not rare in America. But it is rare in the world. Had we been born almost anywhere else, at any other time in history, our lives would have been very different. I would probably have been a very opinionated bartender.”) Both talked about the need to address the debt, tax reform and education reform. But these were two very different speeches, reflecting the road each much travel if he wants to lead his party.

For Rubio, this was a conscious effort to fill in his policy resume. He gave an impressive outline of his views on everything from regulation (“We have to weigh the benefit of any given regulation, against the impact it will have on job creation. That is why we should implement something like Senator Paul’s REINS Act, so that if a regulation is going to cost the economy over $100 million, Congress gets the final say on it, not an unelected and unaccountable bureaucrat.”) to energy policy to health care (“In addition to promoting Flexible Savings Accounts, we should create a health insurance system that focuses on empowering people, not bureaucracy. . . .We should also expand the number of Community Health Centers, as well as work with hospitals to find the best way to integrate them with their emergency rooms to try and get non-life threatening walk-ins to seek treatment there.”) Most impressive was his discussion on education:

First, our elementary and secondary schools need state level curriculum reform and new investment in continuing teacher training. We have an opportunity through the 2013 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act to make some major improvements.


Second, the public school system for millions of disadvantaged American children is a disaster.  Many of these schools deny opportunity to those who need it most.  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. . . .


Third, our tax code should reward investment in education. If you invest in a business by buying a machine, you get a tax credit for the cost. If there is a tax credit for investing in equipment, shouldn’t there be a tax credit for investing in people?


Let’s provide tax encouragement to help parents pay for the school of their choice.  Let’s create a corporate federal tax credit to a qualifying, non-profit 501(c)(3) Education Scholarship Organization, so that students from low income families can receive a scholarship to pay for the cost of a private education of their parents’ choosing.


Fourth, let’s encourage career, technical and vocational education. Why can’t more of our students graduate with a high school diploma and an industry certification in a trade or career? . . .


Fifth, let’s look for ways to address soaring college costs and encourage skill development that doesn’t require the traditional four year college route.  . . .


The “Know Before You Go” Act which I co-sponsored with Senator Wyden of Oregon would ensure future students and their families can make well-informed decisions by having access to information about things like their expected post-graduation earning potential, and how long it will take them to pay off their student loans.


The bottom line is we are trying to prepare 21st century students using a 20th century education model. Now is the time to be creative, innovative and daring in reforming the way we provide our people the skills they need to make it to the middle class.


His central theme was middle-class job creation and economic growth; the underlying message was: I’ve got plenty of policy chops, too. And he did so with humor.  (“A [college loan] debt I paid off just this year with the proceeds of my book ‘An American Son,’ the perfect holiday gift and available on Amazon for only $11.99.”)

Ryan had a different focus, reaching out to the poor and making conservative ideals relevant to the entire country (“Both parties tend to divide Americans into ‘our voter’ and ‘their voters.’ But Republicans must steer far clear of that trap. We must speak to the aspirations and anxieties of every American.”). He was careful to speak well of his running mate (“He would have been a great president, and it would have been an honor to serve this country at his side”), but his speech, one could hardly miss, was a repudiation of the 47 percent mindset and a direct plea to fight poverty with conservative policy ideas.

In that regard, he gave a historical critique of the liberal, government-centric war on poverty, which failed spectacularly, and then presented an alternative conservative vision:

We need a vision for bringing opportunity into every life – one that promotes strong families, secure livelihoods, and an equal chance for every American to fulfill their highest aspirations for themselves and their children. This vision leaves behind the failures of the past. It seeks instead to build on those reforms that have worked. It calls on government to encourage, not displace, the efforts of free people to help one another. It calls for a stronger safety net – one that protects the most vulnerable and promotes self-reliance. It calls for an end to the chronic inequalities in our education system.

While he touted the promotion of “economic growth through free enterprise – because nothing has done more to lift people everywhere out of poverty,” he explicitly stated that “not every problem disappears through the workings of the free market alone.” In Burkean fashion, he reminded the attendees: “There’s a vast middle ground between the government and the individual. Our families and our neighborhoods, the groups we join and our places of worship – this is where we live our lives. This is where the needs of each are most clearly recognized – and met. Communities shape our character. They give our lives direction. And they help make us a self-governing people.”

His central theme was that conservatism is for everyone and can lift people from dependency and poverty; the underlying message was: I can relate to everyone and won’t write off half the country. He also used humor (“congratulations to Senator Rubio on receiving this well-deserved honor. You’re joining an elite group of past recipients – so far, it’s just me and you. I’ll see you at the reunion dinner – table for two. Know any good diners in Iowa or New Hampshire? I’m sure the press won’t read too much into that.”) But he also invoked his conservative bona fides, reminding the crowd, “Jack Kemp was my mentor. And knowing Jack was one of the greatest experiences of my life. We met at Empower America, where I was lucky enough to work with Jack and Bill Bennett, another mentor of mine. Jack and I both served in the House of Representatives, and over the years we both took our share of tough hits – Jack from playing quarterback in the NFL, and me from accidentally knocking into Bill Bennett. Now Jack and I share something else in common: We both used to be the next vice president of the United States.”

So here are two talented conservatives, both young and dynamic, both rounding out their profiles to meet the challenges of the country and party. It bodes well for the GOP and the conservative movement.

Rubio would now do well to translate his ideas into actual policy initiatives and try to move them through (a tall order in the Senate). Ryan should go to the places Republicans don’t and explain how his policies can improve lives. And both need to lead on immigration.