December 7, 2012
By Michael J. Gerson
This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.
Republican ideological self-reflection began in earnest this week, with two notable speeches from young, rising GOP leaders. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) both spoke at the annual dinner of the Jack Kemp Foundation. Each could be facing the other in the next Republican presidential primary. On the evidence of their remarks, the party would be better off for their presence in the field.
Rubio gave a policy-oriented speech about the economic struggles faced by average Americans. His topics ranged from health care to energy policy to reducing the burden of federal regulations. He was strongest on education—proposing curricula reform, better teacher training and education scholarships for low-income children. Though Rubio was not yet prepared to offer specific immigration policy reforms, he made a moving appeal for Republicans to be more welcoming of immigrants.
Ryan gave a more philosophically ambitious speech, arguing how conservative ideas best serve the poor. He talked of the need for a strong safety net, better education and expanding economic growth and opportunity. But he also specifically addressed the importance of the civic sector. “There’s a vast middle ground,” he said, “between the government and the individual. Our families and our neighborhoods, the groups we join and our places of worship—this is where we live our lives. This is where the needs of each are most clearly recognized—and met. Communities shape our character. They give our lives direction. And they help make us a self-governing people.”
Most of Rubio’s and Ryan’s policy ideas are in need of fleshing out. Particularly on the issue of immigration, Republicans will need a more serious, humane approach than they have previously taken. These speeches were only a start, but a serious start.
Both men were focused on the struggles of the poor and middle class and the need for upward economic mobility. These are issues where conservatives could have much to contribute to our national debate—if they show some creativity and compassion. Republicans need to champion not only free markets, but a system where everyone is prepared to succeed in free markets.
Both men implicitly but firmly rejected Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comment from the campaign. “Both parties,” said Ryan, “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.”
And both men adopted a positive, inclusive, generous tone which is so often missing from our political life.
The late Jack Kemp, former Republican Congressman, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Vice-Presidential candidate, used to call himself a “bleeding heart conservative.” I worked for him many years ago and saw his passion for inclusion, his commitment to the poor and his belief in the common good. If Rubio and Ryan become the inheritors of that legacy, it will be good thing for their party and the country.
—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).