Just as the Republican Party is licking its wound from a presidential election loss, two top rising stars offered their vision for a path forward. Delivering speeches Tuesday night at the Jack Kemp Foundation Leadership Award Dinner, former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said the key to electoral success for conservatives is better articulating how their principles can help lift Americans to economic success.
"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."
The Wisconsin congressman's tone on Tuesday was a marked change from that of his running mate, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In private comments made public both before and after the election, Romney claimed President Barack Obama's success was based on "gifts" handed out to constituent groups, such as Latinos and youth, and that about 47 percent of voters were not going to vote for him anyway so they were not his concern.
"As it stands, our party excels at representing the aspirations of our nation's risk-takers. But there is another part of the American creed: When our neighbors are struggling, we look out for one another," Ryan 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 better."
Ryan, emphasizing that Republicans can offer policies that appeal to voters from the most wealthy to the least, said, "Both parties tend to divide Americans into 'our voters' and 'their voters.' But Republicans must steer far clear of that trap. We must speak to the aspirations and anxieties of every American."
Rubio, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Cuba, gave more of a policy-heavy speech. He listed Medicare reform, regulatory reform, domestic energy development, health care reform, and education reform as top priorities for lowering the deficit and reviving the American economy.
He even spoke personally about the importance for student loan reform, announcing that he had just paid off his own student loan debt with the proceeds from his autobiography.
"One of the fundamental challenges before us is to find an appropriate and sustainable role for government in closing this gap between the dreams of millions of Americans and the opportunities for them to actually realize them," Rubio said.
Like Ryan, Rubio acknowledged the role that government can have in improving the lives of Americans through assistance programs, but emphasized the need for private sector community engagement in order to overcome the challenges of those suffering.
"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.
Rubio ended his remarks with an authentic optimism about America's path forward, citing his own family's journey:
"Our story is not rare in America. But it is rare in the world. Had we been born almost anywhere else, at any other time in history, our lives would have been very different. I would probably have been a very opinionated bartender."
The opportunities Rubio said he took advantage of are still there, if government and citizens work together to optimize them, he added.
"Some say that our problem is 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."
Ryan and Rubio, thought to be top contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, acknowledged the buzz by joking with each other about good diners in Iowa and New Hampshire, two key states in the nominating process.
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Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at email@example.com.