He did what?
Senator Ted Cruz was never on anybody’s shortlist for the Most Empathetic Politician award. But his latest display startled even the most jaded political hands.
With Cruz’s home state, Texas, buffeted by a snowstorm that has caused widespread power failures and claimed dozens of lives nationwide, Cruz got on a plane last night and flew to Cancún, Mexico, for a family vacation. Photos began circulating on social media this morning, accompanied by a chorus of dismay and ridicule.
Early this afternoon he released a statement saying that his kids had wanted to take a vacation and arguing that he was still able to work from abroad. “Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon,” he said, adding that he planned to come home today.
Later, after he arrived back in the United States, Cruz said the trip was “obviously a mistake” and said he had begun “second-guessing” it as soon as he got on the plane to Mexico.
I called up a few crisis-communications pros who have worked with other embattled politicians to get their take on the Cruz fiasco. They all sang some variation on the same theme: just wow.
“You can pretty much do damage control for anything, and I think he could do damage control for this,” said Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist who worked on Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign last year. Still, she added: “You have to wonder what the hell was he thinking doing this. The optics of this could not be much worse.”
Stu Loeser, the longtime press secretary for former Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York — who often took discreet trips to Bermuda while in office — was also amazed by Cruz’s decision to fly the coop at one of his state’s most vulnerable moments in recent memory.
“The hardest part in politics and the hardest part in crisis communications is the same thing: being able to predict the future,” Loeser said. “But in this case, people have been without power for days. You knew what would happen.”
Risa Heller, a crisis consultant who advised the disgraced former Representative Anthony Weiner, said that even in a fast-moving, 24-hour news cycle, Cruz’s decision to go through with his vacation could be hard to live down. “It will stay with him for a long time,” she said. “Folks in Texas are not going to forget that a guy who they elected to look out for their interests went on a vacation at their darkest time.”
She added: “Sometimes someone goes out of town and something crazy happens and they have to come back. You can say, ‘I understand that.’ But this is not that. This storm happened and then he left. It sends a real message to his constituents. I guess time will tell if they’ll forgive him, but it’s pretty unforgivable.”
The Republican strategist Joel Sawyer helped former Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina weather the 2009 scandal over his secret vacations with a paramour, which nearly ended his political career. (He ultimately completed his term as governor and later regained his old seat in the House.) Sawyer said that after Sanford left the governor’s mansion, he worked to restore his reputation by offering contrition.
Sawyer wasn’t so sure Cruz had it in him to do the same. “Yes, he can do damage control, but it’s going require great humility on his part,” he said. “I’m not sure how much of that Ted Cruz can muster.”