WASHINGTON — In their most substantive remarks since the presidential election, former Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio called on the Republican Party to expand its focus to the nation's least fortunate, delivering an implicit, but sharp, rebuke to Mitt Romney's "47%" line.
"Both parties tend to divide Americans into 'our voters' and 'their voters,'" Ryan said at the Jack Kemp Foundation Leadership Awards Dinner in Washington Tuesday night, joining the chorus of Republicans moving away from the GOP nominee.
"Let’s be clear: Republicans must steer far clear of that trap," he continued, a line greeted with a loud round of applause from the audience minutes after saying he was "proud" of Romney. "We must speak to the aspirations and anxieties of every American. I believe we can turn the engines of upward mobility back on, so that no one is left out from the promise of America. But it’s going to require a bold departure from the approach that government has taken for the last five decades."
"Jack hated the idea that any part of America could be written off," Ryan said, trying to prove that he is much more than a budgetary wonk.
Similarly Rubio, the honoree at the dinner who, like Ryan, is a likely candidate for the presidency in 2016, took a veiled shot at Romney's claim that he lost because of "gifts" Obama gave to minority group.
"Some say that our problem is that the American people have changed," Rubio said. "That too many people want things from government. But I am still convinced that the overwhelming majority of our people just want what my parents had — a chance."
“Every country has rich people, but only a few places have achieved a vibrant and stable middle class,” Rubio added, calling it a “fundamental promise of America” to have the opportunity to make it to the middle class.
Kemp, a longtime leader of the Republican Party's conservative wing, was long an advocate for the poor, arguing that conservatives must find a way to take care of the least fortunate, with a particular focus on inner city areas.
Their addresses were a must-see event in the nation's capital, drawing dozens of reporters for a preview of a potential 2012 primary match-up, but also a window into the evolving Republican Party.
Both lawmakers laid out expansive visions for a party that doesn't just embrace the "risk-takers," in Ryan's words — the upper middle class and higher income Americans championed by Romney.
"When our neighbors are struggling, we look out for one another," he said. "We do that best through our families and communities — and our party must stand for making them stronger. 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 a better job on that."
Rubio laid out the policy challenges facing the less fortunate — sluggish job creation, rising costs living, a "skills shortage" that is making it harder for people to find work, and the "breakdown" in the American family — laying out his policy agenda for the next two years in Congress.
"They aren’t looking for a handout," Rubio said, of lower-income Americans. "They just want a job that provides for their families."
"In the kitchens of our hotels, in the landscaping crews that work in our neighborhoods, in the late night janitorial shifts that clean our offices: There you will find the dreams America was built on," he added. "There you will find the promise of tomorrow."