Sen. Marco Rubio won the Jack Kemp Foundation’s Leadership Award earlier this week. In his speech accepting the award, he sketched out his Republican vision. Some of the policies he mentioned were pretty conventional for someone of his party: limiting regulations, approving the Keystone XL Pipeline. Some were less conventional, at least as the Republican Party has recently defined itself: creating more community health centers, investing in more teacher training, embracing Pell grants.
But the speech really began to sing toward the end. Rubio made an oblique rebuttal to some of the Republican gaffes during the campaign: “Some say that our problem is that the American people have changed. That too many people want things from government. But I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of our people just want what my parents had: a chance."
Then he recalled an episode: “I was giving a speech at a fancy hotel in New York City. When I arrived at the banquet hall, I was approached by a group of three uniformed employees from the hotel’s catering department. They had seen my speech at the Republican convention, where I told the story of my father the banquet bartender. And they had a gift for me. They presented me with this name tag, which says, “Rubio, Banquet Bartender."
As he was telling this story, Rubio motioned to some of the service staff at the Kemp dinner. They stopped to listen to him.
“It all starts with our people," Rubio continued. “In the kitchens of our hotels. In the landscaping crews that work in our neighborhoods. In the late-night janitorial shifts that clean our offices. There you will find the dreams America was built on. There you will find the promise of tomorrow. Their journey is our nation’s destiny. And if they can give their children what our parents gave us, the 21st-century America will be the single greatest nation that man has ever known."
People at the dinner say that there was a hushed silence for a second as Rubio concluded with this refrain. Then a roaring ovation swelled and filled the room.
The Republican Party has a long way to go before it revives itself as a majority party. But that speech signifies a moment in that revival. And I would say the past month has marked a moment.
Over the past month, the Republican Party has changed far more than I expected. First, the people at the ideological extremes of the party have begun to self-ghettoize. The tea party movement attracted many people who are drawn to black-and-white certainties and lock-step unity. People like that have a tendency to migrate from mainstream politics, which is inevitably messy and impure, to ever more marginal oases of purity.
There has even been some shifting of economic values, or at least in how the party presents those values. The other speaker at the Kemp dinner was Rep. Paul Ryan, who spoke about how to alleviate poverty. He didn’t abandon any of his fundamental beliefs, but he framed those beliefs in a more welcoming way and opened up room for growth and new thinking.
The obligations to combat poverty, Ryan said, are beyond dispute.
“The real debate is how best we can meet them," he said. “It’s whether they are better met by private groups or by government — by voluntary action or by government action. The truth is, there has to be a balance. Government must act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do."
The Republicans may still blow it. If President Barack Obama is flexible and they don’t meet him partway, Republicans would contribute to a recession that would discredit them for a decade. But they are moving in the right direction and moving fast. These are first steps, and encouraging ones.