On Wednesday evening, as millions of Texans were without power during a historic and catastrophic cold spell, the state’s junior senator was on his way to Cancun, where it was 84 degrees and sunny, no chance of rain.
What was Ted Cruz thinking? A less well-known (or less Very Online) senator—say, a John Hoeven or a Jim Risch, perhaps—might have been able to slink off to Mexico unnoticed while their state was in the midst of a catastrophic emergency. But Cruz’s mug is among the most recognizable in American politics; he was easily spotted and photographed on the plane. Less than 24 hours later, he was scurrying back to Texas amid a heated backlash. His excuse? School was out, and his wife and daughters wanted a little break—he was just trying to be a “good dad” by chaperoning the flight and was always planning to head back the next day. This is classic parenting: It’s recommended for fathers to take international flights during states of emergencies to make sure their families gets checked into a resort without any fuss. Maybe he’s just a fan of the Margaritaville at the Cancun airport.
The few conservatives shameless enough to muster excuses for Cruz have offered revealing, if flimsy, excuses for his behavior. “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,” tweeted Erick Erickson. “They’d rather performative drama than substance.” Pint-sized podcaster Ben Shapiro followed the same tack, asking rhetorically if Cruz’s critics “expect Ted to go there with, like, a blowtorch and start defrosting all the pipelines?”
These are obtuse, willfully dense defenses. Even with a Democratic trifecta, Cruz is still a United States senator, and a well-connected one at that. One can help the people of Texas in this horrific moment without being an expert on power grids or pipes; once, someone in Cruz’s position would be expected as a matter of course to be at work during a crisis of this magnitude. Constituent services are one of the most basic functions of every elected official. That Cruz has a duty to the people he represents is never really considered. To Erickson, it’s snidely dismissed as “performative drama.” (It’s worth noting that flying to Cancun during a crisis does not constitute “substance,” the quality Erickson contrasts with cynical optics.)
Taken this way—and taken with recent Republican responses to a number of crises, most notably the ongoing pandemic—it’s easy to see why Cruz took off on Thursday: Republicans have given up on governing.
This hands-off approach to governance was particularly apparent in Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s response to the crisis. With millions of his state’s residents without power and, in many cases, food, clean water, and shelter, Abbott took aim at the real culprit: green energy. “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Abbott told Fox News’s Sean Hannity on Tuesday. “It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary for the state of Texas, as well as other states, to make sure that we will be able to heat our homes in the wintertime and cool our homes in the summertime.” The solution to a crisis caused by climate change, in other words, is to make sure that we do as much as possible to make climate change worse. Sure!
Naturally, none of this was remotely true—green energy is not at fault for the failures of Texas’s power grid. The Green New Deal, one might note, isn’t even law yet. So there has to have been some other underlying cause of this crisis. But we’re not using the logic of a Republican governor. For Abbott, doing something about Texas’s problems is secondary. Priority one is ensuring that the material problems that befall Texans in their daily lives are absorbed within the slurry of culture-war grievances that consume conservatives’ mindshare. The libs have somehow co-opted Texas’s electrical grid, and the best thing Abbott can do to help is own them with memes and rhetoric. Abbott might have been advised to work alongside local, state, and federal officials to resolve the crisis. Instead, he went on Hannity to complain about Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Maybe Texans can warm their homes with his savage burns.
The Republican response to Covid-19, in which even the most basic reforms and health recommendations were fought at every turn by conservative lawmakers who coded “mitigating the effects of the pandemic” as “left wing,” presaged the failures in Texas. The idea that politicians or, god forbid, the state had any responsibility toward ensuring the safety of people was barely even considered. Mask mandates, literally the least that state officials could do, were not only entirely disregarded in many red states, but they were also characterized as a form of liberal tyranny. Two state governors who most strongly resisted lockdowns—Florida’s Ron DeSantis and South Dakota’s Kristi Noem—have become national stars despite the mayhem they’ve released upon their respective states’ populations. DeSantis is, at the moment, considered by some to be in pole position for the GOP’s 2024 nomination should Donald Trump refuse to run.
For years, the GOP has defined itself as proudly having a yawning vacuum where a policy platform should be; with the perennial exception of corporate tax cuts, it has no real domestic agenda. As Katelyn Burns wrote in The New Republic, “The future of Republican rule increasingly depends on either making it harder for voters to choose to vote for Democrats or further rigging the system to dilute the power of a majority that might prefer Democratic politicians or policies.” That’s about it. When crises do materialize, as they do, the only way left to respond is to do nothing and blame Democrats.
There are, of course, limits to what lawmakers can do. Ted Cruz wasn’t going to singlehandedly heat homes in the short term, and he’s only one of many lawmakers who might act to ameliorate the conditions that led to this crisis down the line. But Cruz might have worked the phones, pressed local officials and experts for information, gathered intelligence on where people could turn to for assistance in the days to come, and armed himself with the information necessary to be a leader in Washington in shaping the solutions to come. And there’s a lot to be said about showing some empathy and suffering alongside the people he represents. But Ted Cruz isn’t really in Washington to help the people of Texas. He’s there to fire off tweets, go on Fox News, and, above all, own the libs. Why hang around somewhere it’s so cold? To be honest, he can do all of those things from a resort.