WASHINGTON—It is unfashionable to admit to harboring lustful thoughts about the 2016 presidential race so soon after the November election, but it is naive to think it wasn't on the minds of the conservatives who came to hear Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan speak at the Jack Kemp Foundation Awards Dinner on Tuesday.
The two lawmakers, both under the age of 43, represent the youthful and enterprising wing of the Republican Party and seem more than willing to lead the GOP into a new generation. The foundation—which is named after Jack Kemp, a New York Republican who died in 2009—honored Rubio with its leadership award. Kemp was a personal mentor to Ryan, who was the first to receive the award last year.
Rubio, of course, is already well-known in Republican circles, having risen to national prominence in 2010 after he upset Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to win his Senate seat. He was considered among conservatives to be a top pick to become Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's running mate earlier this year. (Ryan was chosen instead.) Now, Republicans are looking to Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants with a compelling personal story, to help guide the party into an uncertain future, one in which they will be forced to appeal more to voters who are younger and less white.
Rubio also has larger ambitions. While he is certainly willing to take the Republican message of family values and free enterprise into Latino communities, he outlined a policy agenda on Tuesday night that's far more broad than immigration reform. (In fact, he did not discuss immigration policy once in his speech.) Instead, he moved swiftly through a series of proposals, including tax reform, foreign policy, economic growth, job creation, federal regulation, debt, Medicare, energy, monetary policy and health care, focusing on ideas that he said would broaden access to the middle class.
"One of the fundamental promises of America is the opportunity to make it to the middle class. But today, as Paul Ryan correctly pointed out, there is a growing opportunity gap developing. And millions of Americans worry that they may never achieve middle class prosperity and stability and they worry that their children will be trapped as well with the same life and the same problems," Rubio said. "For those of us like Paul Ryan and I who were blessed with the opportunity to serve our country in government, one of the fundamental challenges before us is to find an appropriate and sustainable role for government in closing that gap between the dreams of millions of Americans and the opportunities for them to realize them."
His address contained—dare we even admit?—the early signs of what could become a national stump speech.
But that was just half of the evening's performance of the the 2016 Hopeful Show.
Ryan delivered a similar visionary speech, which pressed the need for Republicans to better explain how their ideas are best for the poor and the middle class. On that front, Republicans are losing, he said.
In his first major address since the November election, Ryan also engaged in a bit of post-campaign soul searching.
"We gave this race our all, and I'm grateful for the nomination," Ryan said of the presidential campaign. "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. ... It's one of those humbling experiences that's a great lesson. But losing is part of politics, and can often prepare the way for the greatest victories."
Ryan praised Romney for his efforts, but he did seem to try to distance himself from the notion that he agreed with the 2012 Republican presidential nominee's assertion that "47 percent" of voters would "never" support the Republican ticket, a remark Romney later said he regretted.
"Jack [Kemp] hated the idea that any part of America could be written off," Ryan said. "Both parties tend to divide Americans into 'our voters' and 'their voters.' Let's be really clear: Republicans must steer far clear of that trap. We must speak to the aspirations and anxieties of every American."
Of course, a night like this wouldn't be complete without a little teasing about 2016. Ryan couldn't resist.
"As you may know, Marco is joining an elite group of past recipients for this reward. Two of us so far," he said, turning to Rubio. "I'll see you at the reunion dinner! Table for two. You know any good diners in New Hampshire or Iowa?"
"I'm sure the press won't read too much into that one," Ryan added. (Spoiler alert: We will. Sorry.)
Rubio got in on the fun, too, when he gave his speech, suggesting another possible location for the reunion dinner: "I will not stand by and watch the people of South Carolina ignored," he said.
The audience, which erupted in applause, seemed to fancy the idea.