The Jack Kemp Foundation holds an annual dinner to celebrate the legacy of the late Republican perhaps best known for referring to himself as a “bleeding heart conservative.” But in an ornate ballroom at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington Tuesday night, it was not so much Kemp’s memory as the recent pain of Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” remarks that hung over the proceedings.
The dinner, at which Sen. Marco Rubio received the Kemp Leadership Award, featured speeches by both Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan. It was far more than a run-of-the-mill award dinner; it was an early mile marker in the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Ryan simply acknowledged what was on everyone’s mind when he joked that he and Rubio ought to get together for dinner and asked: “Know of any good diners in New Hampshire or Iowa?”
In his own speech, Rubio acknowledged the joke and made sure not to leave out the other key early primary state: “I will not stand by and watch the people of South Carolina ignored.”
But what animated both Ryan’s and Rubio’s speeches was the attempt to get out from under the legacy of “47 percent” and to reposition themselves for the future. Ryan, who owed his place on the presidential ticket to Romney, took care to praise his defeated running mate. “I’m proud of the campaign that Mitt Romney and I ran,” Ryan said. “He would have been a great president.” And later: “He’s a good man who did our nation a great service by making a big election about big ideas.”
But Ryan’s praise of Romney served in part to lay a foundation for Ryan’s attempt to distance himself from “47 percent.” “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.” That was as clear a statement as Ryan is likely to make that “47 percent” was an awful trap from which the Romney-Ryan ticket could not escape.
Then there was this: “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.” And this: “Jack [Kemp] just hated the idea that any part of America could be written off.” And this: “We must carry on and keep fighting for the American Idea — the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to rise, to escape from poverty.”
The message was that Republicans are very, very inclusive. They don’t embrace the “47 percent” worldview. They really, really, really want to appeal to all Americans.
It was an idea Rubio drove home in part simply by showing up. No one in the Republican Party today tells the land-of-opportunity story better than Rubio when he describes his Cuban immigrant father coming to America and spending a lifetime tending bar so his children would have a chance at something better. If not for the unique opportunities of the United States, Rubio told the crowd, “I would probably have been a very opinionated bartender.”
Rubio’s speech, on the subject of “middle class opportunity,” was long and substantive. He had clearly worked hard on it, coming to the hotel earlier in the day for a full run-through, reading it off a teleprompter, and having his staff send reporters an advance text and supporting fact sheet. Rubio laid out a number of proposals on taxes, regulations, education, and the social safety net that were largely in line with Republican orthodoxy. Less orthodox was his laser focus on the middle class — in his speech, he uttered the phrase 34 times, which was more reminiscent of the recent Democratic convention than the GOP.
But the bigger effect of Rubio’s address was to hold out the possibility that he can connect with voters who don’t vote Republican. He told the story of giving a speech “at a fancy hotel in New York” recently during which he was approached by three members of the catering staff, all wearing their uniforms.
“They had seen my speech at the Republican convention, where I told the story of my father the banquet bartender,” Rubio said. “And they had a gift for me. They presented me with this name tag, which says ‘Rubio, Banquet Bartender.’” Rubio pulled the nameplate out of his pocket to show the crowd. “That moment reminded me that there are millions of Mario Rubios all across America today. They aren’t looking for a handout. They just want a job that provides for their families.”
It’s unlikely that any story could have made the point more clearly that Marco Rubio is not from Mitt Romney’s Republican party. Rubio would never say it this way, but his message held out the hope that millions of non-GOP voters, perhaps even the very catering worker who apparently shot the “47 percent” video, might one day vote for Rubio for president.
Of course it’s far too early for any politician, Rubio, Ryan, or anyone else, to say he’s running for president. But the Kemp dinner showed that it is not at all too early for the GOP’s leading lights to recast themselves after the Romney defeat. “Wow,” said Kemp’s widow Joanne after Rubio finished. “Isn’t it wonderful to see the baton being passed?”