The Republican candidates who demonstrated in the first debate that they "get it" were the candidates who kept their focus on the pursuit of happiness, a pursuit that runs past carnivals and sideshows and through to economic growth.
Once out of Donald Trump's shadow, and past the noise of loud, vulgar self-promotion, these candidates had serious things to say about the pursuit of the goal called the American dream. The politicians sometimes threaten to make a cliche of that dream, but it's real and it continues to beckon to millions across the world.
The goal isn't pie in the sky, but what the Founding Fathers envisioned as the inevitable reward of democratic republican government. The candidates who brought hope and optimism to the debate, not doom and gloom, got our attention. It wasn't quite Ronald Reagan's reach for "morning in America," but it was nevertheless needed assurance that these clouds, too, will pass.
It's important for conservative candidates to accentuate the positive, pointing out what needs to be done, because the liberals will paint conservatives as Grinches with a stale message. That's all they have. Hillary Clinton boasted before the debate, "I'm not watching, and I don't need to be." Before the last question was answered, however, she tweeted to her followers a plea for money, with the crack that "ten Republican men are on national TV, arguing over which one will do the best job of dragging our country backwards." She watched in spite of herself.
She might have got a little rattled by Marco Rubio's remarks about her, and his emphasis on how his campaign will be about the future. She couldn't lecture him with instructions about how to rise into the middle class. "I was raised paycheck to paycheck," he said. "How is she going to lecture me about student loans? I still owed over $100,000 just four years ago."
His story of immigrant parents rising into the middle class through hard work, his father a bartender and his mother a maid, is persuasive testimony.
"My father was grateful for the work he had, but that was not the life he wanted for his children," he said in his presidential announcement speech in April. "He wanted all the dreams he once had for himself to come true for us. He wanted all the doors that were closed to him to be open for me."
In last week's debate, he also moved beyond the personal. "This country is facing an economy that has been radically transformed," he said. "You know the largest retailer in the country and the world today, Amazon, doesn't own a single store? These changes have been disruptive. They have changed people's lives. The jobs that once sustained our middle class, they either don't pay enough or they're gone, and we need someone that understands that as our nominee."
Arthur Brooks, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, makes the point in his book, "The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America," that conservatives sometimes cast a long shadow as straight, humorless fellows out of touch with the emotional concerns of most people. Conservatives have time-tested ideas that help men and women find dignity and self-sufficiency through work in a free enterprise system, but often have trouble communicating these ideas with passion and heart.
Rubio changed the emphasis and tone of the immigration discussion by showing concern for legal immigrants, who want to come to America without breaking the law and are frustrated now by a long wait while watching their interests get lost in talk about illegals. "The people that call my office ... have been waiting for 15 years to come to the United States," he said. "And they're wondering, maybe they should come illegally." Such temptations are understandable.
The liberals have tried to freshen up their label, discarding "liberal" for "progressive" after leaving the word "liberal" in bad odor. This leaves conservatives with the opportunity to explain how they want to preserve the economic and moral values that produced the American dream in the first place. Such conservative ideas include support for the safety net, for legal immigration and for the reassurance that there's opportunity to rise from poverty, to enjoy a life that does not have to be lived paycheck to paycheck -- that there's a place for all in a flourishing middle class. That requires a growth economy.
Rubio's tone reflects the passionate intelligence that birthed the American dream. Clinton's handlers are said to be worried about the Rubio challenge. Perhaps they should be.