Conservatives have been dreaming that a political reincarnation of Ronald Reagan would lead them to an electoral promised land. I never put my faith in such a possibility, because the past is a dangerous place to live. Reagan never lived in the past, though he did learn from it.
Yet among the contemporary political figures who closely represent the substance and style that made Ronald Reagan who he was is Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican. At a fundraising event for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad last Saturday, Rubio touched all the Reagan bases and focused on solutions, not just a recitation of well-known problems. Probably his best line of the evening was, "The way to turn our economy around is not by making rich people poorer. It's by making poor people richer." In this, he resembled Reagan's favorite president, Calvin Coolidge, who said, "Don't expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong."
Rubio also seemed to suggest that conservatism is larger than the Republican brand, which has become tainted in some minds. He said, "This is not about the Republican Party. This is about limited-government conservatism." While he said the Republican Party "is the home of that movement," he seemed to suggest that it is not necessarily its permanent residence.
Rubio also displayed the self-deprecating humor that was a hallmark of Reagan when he said the reason he went to college in nearby Northwest Missouri is that no other college would allow him to play football. Were it not for his "lack of size, speed and talent," he said, he might have played in the National Football League.
Rubio spoke of the middle class, which President Obama constantly referred to during the campaign. He said a major reason the poor are having difficulty moving into the middle class is that the economy has stagnated. That, he said, is due to the record debt, uncertainty that has kept businesses from hiring and a lack of skills needed in a global economy.
Some Republicans are again suggesting the party would perform better if it divorced itself from social conservatives and their issues. Rubio addressed that notion directly and rejected it: "The breakdown of the American family has a direct impact on our economic well-being. The social and moral well-being of [our] people is directly linked to their economic well-being. You can't separate the two."
While praising "heroic" single mothers, Rubio said, "They would be the first to tell you how difficult it is." He added, "A two-parent home gives kids advantages," and he said "the great gift my parents gave me" was staying together and loving him and his siblings.
Rubio was not judgmental -- he merely appealed to a higher standard. He is not an angry moralist putting others down, but a political evangelist showing there is a better way. The difference is subtle, but it is in contrast to Mitt Romney's remark about a nation in which 47 percent are takers.
The way one delivers a message in the TV age is as important as the substance of that message. John Kennedy said, "We can do better." Like Kennedy and Reagan, Rubio is good at turning a phrase so you instantly remember it. Consider this one: "Big government doesn't help people who want to make it; it hurts them." Then there is his call to patriotism from an American born of Cuban immigrants who regularly expresses gratitude to a nation that offered him opportunity: "I can never do more for this country than what this country has done for me." It's followed by a warning: "If America declines, there is nothing to take our place."
Rubio has the message the Republican Party needs. It's a long way to 2016, and there are many good potential presidential candidates. But Marco Rubio could be the one candidate conservatives have been waiting for: the second coming of Ronald Reagan.
Examiner Columnist Cal Thomas is nationally syndicated by Tribune Media.