Yet that’s exactly what Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) chose to do. While hospitals around the state lost power and were forced to evacuate patients, homes went dark and frozen water pipes burst, icy roads forced terrible choices between risking the cold at home or chancing the journey to power and heat, and millions of Texans were warned that they had to boil their water to ensure it was safe to drink, Cruz headed for the Mexican resort town of Cancun.
Let’s be absolutely clear: Cruz isn’t going to single-handedly fix the power grid. He’s not going to climb to the top of Big Tex, the massive mascot of the Texas State Fair, and direct rebuilding efforts. But for someone with presidential aspirations — someone who wants desperately to be the commander in chief, someone whose America-first ideals form the backbone of his political identity — I cannot imagine a worse response.
This is why I have to disagree with folks, such as my friend Erick Erickson, who suggest criticism of Cruz in this matter is little more than political blustering. “The fact that people think Ted Cruz, a United States Senator, can do anything about a state power grid, even his own, is rather demonstrative of the ignorance of so many people who cover politics,” Erickson tweeted. “They’d rather performative drama than substance.”
Again, it’s not so much that people in Texas want Cruz to strap on a tool belt and help de-ice wind turbines and natural gas pipelines. But a key part of being a politician is understanding the world of political theater. Politics is performative. At a very basic level, the one thing that all voters want is to understand that the people they elect care about them. Constituents may not want politicians to care for them, to provide for all their needs and wants; constituents may disagree about the substantive policy choices that politicians should pursue in the hopes of helping.
But constituents want to feel like their politicians give a damn. Even if what they have to give is nothing more than being present at a church, handing out some blankets, setting up some warming stations and saying that after this is over we’re going to get as much money from the federal government as we can to rebuild our grid and make it stronger than ever.
Even before Cruz issued a statement, it was entirely predictable what he would say: that this was a preplanned vacation for the Cruz family during a Senate recess; that he was just trying to get his family safely to their hotel before coming back to the state to get his hands dirty with the hard work of getting the grid back online; no one is going to care about this because no one cared about what some Democratic politician did in some other state during some other crisis, what about that; this is all a vicious partisan witch hunt by the fake news media attacking a family man. And indeed, that is essentially the story Cruz tried to tell.
But Cruz understands better than most that politics is performative, that the image you present to the world matters when it comes to rallying your base to your side. He understands better than most how to leverage his social media presence to stoke the fires of the culture war. Heck, he has cribbed some of my own writing in the effort to do just that.
Political theater is an important part of being a politician. In this day and age, it is arguably the most important part of being a politician, especially for those ambitious officials who want to make themselves known to voters across the country. And flying out of the country while your constituents freeze to death is abysmal political theater, the sort of thing that will be used in attack ads for the rest of Cruz’s career.
You don’t have to care about your voters. But you do have to pretend to care about them.