A month after Republicans lost their bid for the White House, a pair of party leaders said Tuesday that a greater emphasis should be placed on improving the lives of the middle class if Republicans hoped to expand their appeal and confront the nation’s changing demographics.
Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the former vice-presidential candidate, declared: “The Republican Party can’t make excuses.” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said the party should pursue policies aimed at allowing “the poor to rise into the middle class — not by making the rich people poorer, but by making poor people richer.”
The two rising Republicans — Ryan, 42, and Rubio, 41 — delivered speeches in Washington at a tribute dinner to Jack Kemp, the Republican congressman and the party’s 1996 vice-presidential nominee, who died in 2009. It was the first address Ryan has given since he and Mitt Romney were defeated in the Nov. 6 presidential election.
While Ryan said that he was “proud” of Romney, he offered veiled criticism of a comment that inflicted deep political damage on the Republican ticket when Romney was secretly recorded saying that 47 percent of Americans saw themselves as victims dependent on the government.
“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 echoed the sentiment and warned of a “growing opportunity gap” among Americans. He said controlling the nation’s rising debt burden and overhauling the tax code were critical steps, but only the beginning of what needed to be accomplished in Congress. He called for a sweeping overhaul of the education system.
“We are trying to prepare 21st-century students using a 20th-century model,” Rubio said. “Now is the time to be creative, innovating and daring in reforming the way we provide our people the skills they need to make it to the middle class.”
The speeches on Tuesday evening offered Republicans an early preview of two potential candidates in the 2016 presidential election — and themes that are likely to be at the heart of the agenda as the party works to rebuild.
In his speech, Ryan directly acknowledged his defeat, saying, “Losing is part of politics, and it can often prepare the way for greater victories.”
He welcomed Rubio to the dinner with an oblique reference to the two states that traditionally open the race to the White House, saying, “Know any good diners in Iowa or New Hampshire?” (When Rubio took the stage, he thanked Ryan for the invitation, but quipped, “I will not stand by and let the people of South Carolina be ignored.”)
Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee who is deeply involved in the contentious fiscal talks under way in Washington, did not wade into specific details of the negotiations. He congratulated President Obama for his victory but said both parties had a burden to work together.
“At a time of great consequence, the American people have again chosen divided government and it’s up to us to make this divided government work,” Ryan said. “We’ve got to set aside partisan considerations in favor of one overriding concern: How can we work together to repair the economy? How can we provide real security and upward mobility for all Americans — especially those in need?”
Rubio, who has carefully nurtured his national profile since being elected in 2010, made only a passing reference to one of the critical issues facing the Republican Party: overhauling the nation’s immigration laws. But his speech was laced with anecdotes about his personal journey and his rise to the Senate from two working-class, Cuba-born parents.
In closing, he relayed a story about walking into a hotel in New York after he delivered his keynote speech at the Republican National Convention in August. He said that three employees from the catering department — dressed in their uniforms — presented him with a name tag that said, “Rubio, Banquet Bartender.”
“That moment reminded me that there are millions of Mario Rubios all across America today,” Rubio said, holding the gold name tag in the air as the crowd applauded. “They aren’t looking for a handout. They just want a job that provides for their families.”