The arguments and strategies that will drive the 2016 presidential campaign were on display Tuesday night in back-to-back speeches by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at the Jack Kemp Foundation Leadership Award Dinner.
The event – which honored Ryan, the 2011 award recipient, and Rubio the 2012 recipient – gave each politician a chance to assert an identity for the campaign, years before any announcements are made. For Ryan, it is the need to establish a broad vision for the country beyond the world of the budget that has consumed his time in Congress. For Rubio it is the opposite: he will be only two-thirds of the way through his first Senate term when campaigning gets underway for the next election and he must prove he has the policy chops to lead.
Their speeches matched on one concept: asserting the need to speak to a broader segment of society than the rural and suburban white men that no longer represent enough voters to carry the GOP to victory.
"Both parties tend to divide Americans into 'our voters' and 'their voters,' Ryan said. "Let's be really clear: Republicans must steer far clear of that trap. We must speak to the aspirations and anxieties of every American."
Rubio, anchored by his personal story (the son of Cuban immigrants who made it into the middle class), said people must recognize the desires of lower-income Americans.
"Now I've heard it suggested 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."
Jack Kemp, the former pro football player, congressman, and vice presidential candidate, was deeply involved in fighting poverty during his time in the public eye. His work could be a model for the party to improve its standing with minority and inner-city voters around the country. His son James Kemp, president of the Jack Kemp Foundation, said it’s about more than just that.
“This is not about the party, I want to be clear about that. This is about a movement. And dad was a part of a movement,” he said in an interview with National Journal.
The speech Ryan delivered mirrored one he gave at Cleveland State University in late October, during the campaign, in which he argued that the measure of compassion should be the outcomes of policy rather than the number of federal dollars spent. It was a theme he returned to in his speech Tuesday evening. Already steeped in policy details with his authorship of the House Republican budget, it will be incumbent upon Ryan to sketch a worldview in broad, uplifting terms that can offset Democratic charges that his spending cuts hit the lower and middle classes the hardest.
"When our neighbors are struggling, we look out for one another. We do that best through our families and communities – and our party must stand for making them stronger," Ryan said. "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."
He made the case for a compassionate government, but urged the audience to measure it by the outcome, not the number of federal dollars spent. He also said that compassion should be more than just words.
It was also Ryan’s first major speech since losing the election with former GOP nominee Mitt Romney on November 6 (“Jack and I share something else in common: We both used to be the next vice president of the United States,” he joked of Kemp’s 1996 vice presidential campaign). “Though I wish this election had turned out differently, I’m proud of the campaign Mitt Romney and I ran. He would have been a great president, and it would have been an honor to serve this country at his side…it’s thrilling when your team trusts you with the ball, and it’s humbling when you advance the ball as far as you can, only to come up a little short,” he said.
“An election has come and gone. And the people have made their choice. But policymakers still have a duty to choose between ideas that work and those that don’t. When one economic policy after another has failed our working families, it’s no answer to simply express compassion for them or to create more government programs that offer promise but don’t perform,” Ryan added later in his speech.
Rubio, already known for being a talented orator, used his speech to lay out an extensive list of policy prescriptions from education reform to a call for more sound monetary policy and a more limited role for the Federal Reserve. The more partisan speaker of the two, he criticized certain provisions in the Affordable Care Act, though stopped short of calling for its repeal. He also explicitly opposed President Obama's call to raise tax rates on the wealthy.
“You can’t open or grow a business if your taxes are too high or too uncertain. That is why I oppose the President’s plan to raise taxes,” Rubio said. “It isn’t about a pledge. It isn’t about protecting millionaires and billionaires. 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 would hurt middle class businesses and the people who work for them.”
Outlining a plan to strengthen the middle class, Rubio warned of an "opportunity gap" that is developing in society. "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 said. For the multitude of policies he discussed, however, Rubio did not discuss immigration reform, an issue he has worked on in Congress.
Both Ryan and Rubio described a limited role for government to promote social mobility. Rubio in particular said it could help combat what he termed “societal breakdown,” including broken families.
“Government leaders should take part in, and encourage, a national conversation about the importance of civil society institutions and leaders in creating the social infrastructure needed for success,” he said, urging the government to engage community leaders.
Both Ryan and Rubio were quick to use humor address the elephant in the room: the fact that they may be competitors in presidential primary in three short years. As Ryan joked that Rubio was joining “an elite group of past recipients” of the award (they are the only two to have received it), he quipped, “I’ll see you at the reunion dinner – table for two. Know any good diners in New Hampshire or Iowa?”
Rubio was not to be outdone. “Paul, thank you for your invitation for lunch in Iowa or New Hampshire,” he said in reference to two of the three states that lead the political calendar. “But I will not stand by and see the people of South Carolina ignored!"