WASHINGTON — Rep. Paul Ryan, fresh off the campaign trail as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee, delivered a speech Tuesday evening distancing himself from the”47 percent” and “gifts” comments that came to define his former running mate and laying out a vision of a more compassionate Republican Party — one that not only promotes economic and social opportunity, but also helps those who are struggling.
The speech, delivered at the Jack Kemp Foundation’s Leadership Award dinner, was Ryan’s first foray into the 2016 presidential contest. In it, Ryan staked his claim to a vision for the future of a party that, coming off a disappointing election, has by many accounts lost its way.
Ryan was there to introduce one of his potential 2016 rivals, Sen. Marco Rubio, who received the leadership award on Tuesday. (RELATED: Rubio shatters fundraising records at Iowa governor’s birthday event)
The award went to Ryan in 2011, its inaugural year — a fact not lost on the Wisconsin representative, who joked to Rubio at the start of his remarks, “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?”
In his speech, Ryan spoke about what he thinks the Republican Party ought to look like in 2016 in order to avoid a repeat of the 2012 elections.
“The election didn’t go our way, and the Republican Party can’t make excuses,” Ryan said. “We can’t spend the next four years on the sidelines. Instead, we must find new ways to apply our timeless principles to the challenges of today.”
“As it stands, our party excels at representing the aspirations of our nation’s risk-takers,” he added. “We celebrate that part of the American dream that involves finding your passion and making a living from it. But there is another part of the American creed: 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.”
The GOP, Ryan said, needs to work on better articulating its ideology.
“We have a compassionate vision based on ideas that work,” he said, “but sometimes we don’t do a good job of laying out that vision. We need to do better.”
Romney’s “47 percent” remarks, which suggested to some that the GOP does not care much for those who are struggling, was a notable example of poor communication by Republicans during the election season. (RELATED: GOP tries to move on after Senate candidate appears to suggest rape pregnancies are God’s will)
Ryan was careful not to come across as attacking the man who was, until four weeks ago, his running mate.
“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,” Ryan said.
However, Ryan proceeded to completely disavow Romney’s remarks.
“Both parties tend to divide Americans into ‘our voters’ and ‘their voters,'” Ryan said. “But Republicans must steer far clear of that trap. 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,” he said.
Ryan said welfare reform in the 1990s reduced dependency and helped people “shape their own destiny.”
The problem now, Ryan said, is that instead of applying a similar model, “we’re still trying to measure compassion by how much we spend – not by how many people we help.”
That model is evidently not working, Ryan said, because “today, 46 million people are living in poverty.”
“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.”
Unlike Rubio’s later speech, Ryan’s address was short on specific policies that would promote that vision. Instead, he sketched out general ideas and principles.
His vision, he said, “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. And finally, it promotes economic growth through free enterprise – because nothing has done more to lift people everywhere out of poverty.”
In pursuing this agenda, there has to be “a balance,” Ryan said, between the role of the private sector and the role of the government. Both, he said, are necessary and must work together.
At the end of his speech, Ryan addressed the impending fiscal cliff — a subject that most are more used to hearing the wonky House budget committee chairman talk about.
Ryan tied the country’s fiscal problems to the problems of struggling Americans.
“It’s not just the abuses of government that undermine civil society,” Ryan said. “It’s also the excesses. Look at the road we’re on – with trillion-dollar deficits every year. Debt on this scale is destructive in so many ways. And one of them is that it draws resources away from private charity.”
“Even worse is the prospect of a debt crisis – which will come unless we do something very soon,” he added. “When government’s finances collapse, the most vulnerable are the first victims, as we’re seeing right now in Europe. Many there feel they have nowhere to turn. And we must never let that happen in America.”
In the aftermath of the election, Ryan said, Republicans needed to break out of their slump and do their “duty to choose between ideas that work and those that don’t.”
“We must come together and advance new strategies for lifting people out of poverty,” he said.