In politics, there are a few unwritten rules that every good politician adheres to. Don’t compare any situation to Nazi Germany. Don’t get out of step with your party base. And perhaps most importantly, when things go sideways for your constituents, don’t go on vacation.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz broke that rule this week when he and his family were spotted hopping on a plane to the resort town of Cancun, Mexico, amid a devastating winter storm and subsequent power grid failure in his home state that has left millions in dire straits.
“I can’t believe I have to say this, but: if you’re an American pol whose state is enduring a crisis of Katrina-like proportions and instead of going to help your constituents in even a basic, performative sort of way you FLY TO ANOTHER COUNTRY’S BEACH TOWN, you’re doing it wrong,” tweeted Sonny Bunch, a conservative commentator living in Texas.
That is, of course, exactly right.
Cruz sought to frame the trip as a necessary dad moment on Thursday. “Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon,” he said in a statement. “My staff and I are in constant communication with state and local leaders to get to the bottom of what happened in Texas.”
No one expects Cruz to fix the problems with Texas power grid. (As I explained on Wednesday, the issue with the grid has its roots in Texas’ long-standing belief that it is an independent nation-state, operating entirely apart from the federal government’s reach.)
Cruz isn’t a power grid expert. Nor, as a senator, does he have any ability to effect immediate change in the way the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which runs the Texas grid, operates. (ERCOT is overseen by the Texas state legislature and the state’s Public Utility Commission.)
But in moments of crisis – and there are millions of Texans in crisis right now – people look to politicians for comfort and reassurance. And they do it even if they know that no one particular politician has the ability to help them out of their current problems. They do it because, in theory, our elected officials are leaders in our community and, therefore, are responsible for bringing the community together in moments of tragedy or catastrophe.
It’s this spirit that brought Barack Obama to Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015 to deliver the eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the people killed in a racially motivated mass shooting. Or George W. Bush to the pile of rubble left in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York City.
Obama didn’t change the racial problems in this country by being in South Carolina, or the trend of mass shooting. Bush didn’t vanquish terrorists or bring back those who had died at their hand in New York.
But they were there. They showed that they grieved, too. That even if they hadn’t lost a family member or a close friend in these tragedies that they empathized with those who did suffer those losses because we are all Americans and all struggle and strive together.
There are those who dismiss this as purely performative politics – empty symbolism with no purpose.
“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 conservative commentator Erick Erickson. “They’d rather performative drama than substance.”
That badly misses the point. Just because Cruz can’t fix the immediate problem facing Texans doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be there – helping out at warming shelters or handing out food in water to people in crisis. Because that would show that he cares about his constituents, that he is willing to do any and everything to make this situation even a little bit better.
At the root of serving in elected office is representing the needs of the people who voted you in. Serving their needs doesn’t always mean casting the right vote for them or giving a speech on the Senate floor that you believe to be in their interests. It means lending a hand or an ear when they are struggling. And it very much does not mean flying to Cancun with your family for a vacation.