Ross Douthat shrewdly notes the differences between Ted Cruz and guys like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Mike Lee. Rubio is trying to move the Republican position on immigration in the direction of amnesty-first + expanded low-skill immigration. Rand Paul has developed an articulate, prudentially-argued noninterventionism. Mike Lee has come out for a tax program that would primarily benefit middle-class and struggling families. Cruz is finding the ground where the median conservative activist agrees with him and fighting on that issue.

For Douthat, Cruz’s project isn’t to reform the Republican party, but to become the leader of conservatism as it is. It isn’t about adjusting policy to become more appealing to voters outside the Republican party’s core. It is about being a fighter on those issues where conservatives already have a consensus. Cruz is trying to become Mr. Conservative by a combination of policy caution and tactical aggression.

Douthat thinks that Cruz as the ideologically orthodox fighter might be good enough to get Cruz runner-up status in the 2016 primaries and relative obscurity afterwards. I’m not sure it even gets Cruz that far. The Cruz strategy as described by Douthat doesn’t remind me of Reagan or Kemp. It reminds me most of Michele Bachmann - and her campaign ended rather badly. Cruz is more articulate than Bachmann so he might be expected to do better even with the same plan.

But there is another path that Cruz can take. He can, upon establishing himself as Mr. Conservative, use his position to shift what it means to be conservative. Cruz spent part of his speech today talking about how Obamacare would damage the prospects of low-wage workers. It doesn’t have to stop there. He can outflank Marco Rubio on immigration policy by coming out in favor of an immigration policy designed to benefit low-skill workers.   Cruz can adopt something like Mike Lee’s tax reform. This would put Cruz on the side of the middle-class tax cut while Paul would be supporting a tax increase on middle-class parents.

That isn’t where Cruz is today on immigration and taxes, but so what? Mike Lee didn’t used to be for Mike Lee’s tax proposal. Ronald Reagan adopted the Kemp-Roth tax cut and pro-life politics. Cruz has a chance to become more than just the “titanium spine” candidate of 2016.

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