“For anyone who is a fan of limited government, for anyone who is a fiscal conservative and economic conservative, November 6, 2012, was an ugly, ugly day,” said Ted Cruz, the new United States senator, during his speech at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s biennial policy orientation.

With the legislature largely quiet on its second day of the eighty-third session, the speech was the biggest political event in Austin today. Cruz has been touted as a rising star in the Republican Party for several years, and national conservatives saw his election as one of the few bright spots for the GOP last year—a view that the Texas audience, which greeted Cruz with a standing ovation, clearly shared. Yet Cruz had some critical words for his party, and his message, which he’s calling “opportunity conservatism,” that marks a shift in tone for Texas Republicans, if not in policy implications.

(For background, and as a note of disclosure, I had appeared at the policy orientation earlier in the day for a Q&A session about my forthcoming book about Texas.)

Cruz started the speech by explaining that he disagreed with accounts of the November elections that concluded that Republicans had been too extreme, or that the American people had given up on conservatism as a concept. In fact, he added, more than half of voters, in exit polls, had said that government was doing too much. His explanation was that Republicans had simply come up short. “Margaret Thatcher famously said, ‘first you win the argument, then you win the vote,” he said. “Republicans did neither.” He continued: “If you want to sum up what was wrong with the election, it was ‘47 percent.’”   

This is a diagnosis that Cruz has given before, notably in an op-ed in the Washington Post last week. In his view, Democrats have made the case that the United States is divided between the haves and the have-nots, and that the Republicans are the party of the plutocrats. Not only have Republicans failed to contest that, they’ve occasionally seemed to agree with it; that’s what happened with Mitt Romney’s now-notorious comments, at a fundraiser, that 47 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax and therefore expect government to help take care of them. In his speech, Cruz took pains to say that he didn’t think Romney meant it the way it came out; people are bound to bungle some of the things they say. But the comments nonetheless corroborated suspicions about Republicans, and sealed the party’s fate, at least for 2012. 

The problem, Cruz argued, was that the Democratic narrative is wrong, about conservatism. (“I cannot think of an idea more antithetical to what it is we believe”) and, more importantly, about the nature of economic progress. “The reason I’m a conservative is very simple,” he said. “Conservative policies work.” That is, he continued, fiscally conservative policies work for the 47 percent; they facilitate entrepreneurship, for example, and encourage people to chase economic mobility. Cruz, then, is calling for what he calls “opportunity conservatism.” What does that mean? “It means that conservatives should conceptualize and should articulate every domestic policy with a laser focus on easing the means of ascent,” he said. “That we should talk about policy with a Rawlsian lens.”

That last bit refers to the American philosopher John Rawls, whose 1971 landmark, A Theory of Justice, is considered one of the most important works of political theory of the twentieth century. In it, Rawls asks readers to imagine themselves behind “a veil of ignorance”: If you didn’t know what kind of situation you would be born into—your gender, your race, your family background, your physical health, and so on—what kind of political system would you consider most fair for everyone? That experiment, Rawls says, should point us to the broad principles of a just society.

It’s also an experiment that implicitly acknowledges the fact that things like race and class are, in reality (as opposed to in thought experiments), often correlated with economic outcomes. And so Rawls, as you might expect, has more commonly been associated with the American left than the right. But that was, of course, one of Cruz’s points. He said that when Democrats try to help people directly, as through an expanded safety net, they usually mean well, but “the problem is, it never, ever, ever works.” In fact, he said, Democratic policies “have wreaked devastation” on the very people they’re meant to help; he pointed to the rise in unemployment among Hispanics and African-Americans during Barack Obama’s first term as evidence. A state like Texas, he continued, should be an example to the rest of the country. It’s been run on limited-government lines a long time, and the result has been a thriving economy and relatively low unemployment.

Cruz offered, in other words, a ringing endorsement of the Texas model. But what was notable about his speech is that it offered a slightly different emphasis than the one Texans are used to hearing. Texas’s Republican leaders generally make the case for limited government on the grounds that limited government has the intrinsic virtue of maximizing freedom, or that it has to be pursued on behalf of the hard-working taxpayers. That’s how Rick Perry, for example, put it yesterday in his remarks to state legislators. Cruz’s message doesn’t conflict with that, but it does mark a shift in focus. He’s effectively saying that Republicans support limited government because they believe that’s what best creates opportunity, and therefore progress, for all Americans–including or especially the 47 percent, even if their politicians sometimes forget to mention it. Whether his party agrees with him is yet to be seen.