More recently, think of Donald Trump throwing paper towels at a hurricane-ravaged crowd in Puerto Rico, or blaming the California wildfires on inept forest management, and puzzling the president of Finland by his references to “raking.” Trump’s die-hard supporters didn’t see any of it as gaffes, but add to that his persistent minimizing of another disaster, the Covid-19 pandemic, and you have a pattern of indifference to suffering that, his pollsters say, ultimately cost him reelection.
In the case of Cruz, his missteps are worthy of a simulation where the player tests just how many wrong moves he can make in a row. (Leave in the midst of crisis? Check. Leave just a few months after attacking a Democratic mayor for going to Mexico during a Covid-19 lockdown? Check. Ask the overstressed Houston Police Department for assistance at the airport? Check. Claim you meant to return immediately when the airline says otherwise? Clearly, Cruz was not up to speed on how leaders best respond to a natural crisis; President Barack Obama’s response to Hurricane Sandy, his rapid marshaling of forces and his visit to the affected areas won him bipartisan praise.
For Cruz, are there are any lessons the senator might learn from the past? There’s one that quickly comes to mind, even though executing it may be challenging: Apologize.
In his reelection, Lindsay cut an ad that began: “I guessed wrong about the weather before the city’s biggest snowstorm. And that was a mistake.” It may not have been much; but voters wanted to hear this handsome Manhattan WASP scrape a little before the citizens of the outer boroughs. By contrast, Chicago Mayor Bilandic never apologized for the chaos that engulfed his city, at one point saying that a return to 70 percent efficiency was good enough. Christie was even more stubborn, noting that use of the beach was one of the perquisites of the office.
Cruz took the right first step—on his return to Texas Thursday afternoon, he acknowledged he’d made the wrong call: “Look, it was obviously a mistake, and in hindsight I wouldn’t have done it. … I started having second thoughts almost the moment I sat down on the plane … leaving when so many Texans were hurting didn’t feel right.”
The most promising course from now might be to go all-in; to apologize not just for his departure, but for his earlier ridiculing of California for its energy woes, for making a family vacation his first priority. And if he wants to change the subject, he might embrace a point that experts have long pointed to as a long-term dilemma for politicians when it comes to disasters: That while voters are acutely aware of immediate responses to a crisis, they never reward leaders who try to prevent the next one.
University of Pennsylvania professor Dan Hopkins has pointed out that disaster preparedness is extremely cost-effective policy that just doesn’t register with the electorate the way failure does. “As voters, we pay attention in the wake of disasters, and we reward or punish incumbents based on their actions,” he wrote. “But when the cameras are elsewhere, we’re not nearly as good about rewarding the incumbents who are getting ready for the next disaster.”
Taking that path would require from Ted Cruz a strong dose of humility, and a willingness to step away from scoring cheap political points in favor of an approach that might actually make things better. A glance of the senator’s record tells us just how likely that response will be.