Cruz thought he’d found a middle path between Trump’s false claims about election fraud and reality. In a speech shortly before the Capitol was locked down that day, he deployed his practiced debate-team tenor in service of just-raising-some-questions about purported fraud. The electoral votes from Arizona should not be counted, he argued, because of reasons. Then thousands of people who agreed stormed past police barricades, injuring scores of law enforcement officers and leaving five people dead.
The water got a bit rocky for Cruz for a while. He and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who’d similarly stepped up to defend Trump’s indefensible position, became figureheads for the formal effort to undo the 2020 election. Luckily for them, it was the informal, deadlier effort that became a focus of political, legal and public attention over the ensuing weeks.
That was one of the reasons that attention turned away from Cruz in the weeks after Jan. 6 — his rhetorical scheming legitimately paled in importance relative to the violence. The other reason attention faded was that Cruz was simply representing what most of his party wanted to see. Republicans weren't going to spend much time lambasting Cruz while they were simultaneously defending Trump for doing far worse. Cruz was protected in part by the umbrella the political right had opened over the period from Election Day to Jan. 6.
Cruz's play this week was very different.
On Wednesday, reports began to pop up on social media that the senator and his family had been seen at the airport in Houston, apparently traveling to Cancun, Mexico. Photos of Cruz were posted and analyzed for proof that it was, in fact, the junior senator from Texas, heading out of country just as millions of the state’s residents were stuck without power, heat or water. Within a short while, it became clear that he was, in fact, joining the Cruz family women and children in the closest available lifeboat.
A firestorm erupted. Cruz was forced to sheepishly return to the “greatest country in the world,” as he reflexively described it when trying to spin his short vacation to reporters. But even as he obviously recognized the political foolishness of his family's plan, he couldn't help but make things worse by repeatedly misrepresenting and revising what the plan actually was.
Consider the timeline.
On Monday, Cruz was interviewed for a podcast in which he discussed the still unfolding situation in Texas. At the time, his political play was to present himself as the neighborhood good guy.
“Thankfully my home, we didn't lose power,” he said. “So right now we've got a bunch of the neighborhood kids all over playing with our girls because their parents lost power and our house was lucky.”
By Wednesday, the situation had apparently changed. Text messages sent by his wife to a group of friends (confirmed by The Washington Post after being obtained by the New York Times) appear to indicate that the Cruzes were staying with friends on Tuesday night because of a loss of heat, making them eager to decamp for warmer climes. So off they went, on the 4:45 out of Bush Intercontinental.
Within 24 hours or so, Ted Cruz was on his way back. At first, a statement released by his office tried to suggest that he'd always intended to simply drop his kids off in Mexico the way one might an after-school soccer practice.
“Like millions of Texas, our family lost heat and power too,” the statement read. “With school cancelled for the week, our girls asked to take a trip with friends. Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon.”
Cruz is a lawyer and his statement lawyerly. It's like saying that you'd gone to a bar for a drink before returning home, skipping over the part where you were thrown out of the establishment for drunken rowdiness. Reporters soon discovered that Cruz's return flight had originally been scheduled for the weekend; his return was motivated not by intentionality but self-preservation.
When he got home, he spoke with a reporter from a local television station. Nearby, protesters shouted “Resign!”
“I flew out late last night,” he said, offering a slightly updated version of his story. “We had spent two days without power and my girls wanted to take a trip with their friends and, frankly, get somewhere where it was warmer. And Heidi and I agreed. We took them. I flew them down last night and then I just flew back today. Before then and going forward I am continuing to work with state officials, with local officials to get the grid back on.”
Those “two days without power” were precisely defined: after his Monday podcast interview, apparently, and before his Wednesday flight. Given that they stayed somewhere else on Tuesday night, the hardships experienced by the family seem to be somewhat less expansive than Cruz offers.
Notice, too, that Cruz perhaps accidentally reveals the intent of the trip: Before leaving and from the point at which he got home moving forward, he’d be working on behalf of the state. On his flight and in Cancun? Not so much, it seems.
That, too, changed within a few hours as a performatively contrite Cruz appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show.
“Heidi and me, we lost power for two days,” Cruz said. “Our house was dark. We had no heat. Actually, the fireplace behind me, we were all huddled around the fireplace because it was the only heat in the house.”
(The Ivy League-educated Cruz has read some Dickens.)
“After a couple of days, after the girls being really cold and being in the teens and the 20s outside,” he continued, “our girls asked and said, look, school’s been canceled for the week. Can we take a trip and go somewhere warm? And Heidi and I, as parents, we said, okay, sure.”
Cruz told Hannity that he'd “initially planned to stay through the weekend and to work remotely there” but changed his mind.
“As I was heading down there, you know, I started to have second thoughts almost immediately because the crisis here in Texas, you need to be here on the ground,” he said. “As much as you can do by phone and Zoom, it's not the same as being here.”
The scrambling was almost audible. Cruz prides himself on his cleverness and his grasp of political tactics. But this was an unforced error of a remarkably traditional sort. Cruz decided to head out for a vacation at a particularly grim moment, got caught and then burned 1,000 calories a minute backpedaling.
What’s amazing, really, is that this was the action that Cruz’s allies broadly found indefensible. Moving with the pack on Trump’s fraud nonsense, he had cover to undercut a democratic election here in the greatest country in the world. Flying off by himself in a way that demanded an obvious contrast between his privilege and the plight of most Texans, he was exposed. The GOP will abide an effort to seize power through nondemocratic means; it will not rise to his defense when Cruz acts like just another political elite.
It’s true that Cruz’s official ability to effect change following the storms that crippled Texas is limited (though his 2018 Senate opponent, former congressman Beto O’Rourke, put together an ad hoc assistance effort). The actual effect of his departure was almost certainly smaller than his efforts on Jan. 6. But politics is often about perception as much as power and, to Republicans and probably many Texans, the perception of dipping out as people literally froze to death was worse than the perception of endorsing a shift toward autocracy.
Cruz is home now and hopefully warm. With his story straightened out, we can expect some sort of effort from his office to effect a material change to the benefit of his constituents. He’s not up for reelection until 2024, at which point the past 48 hours of static will probably have faded. If he runs again and earns his party’s nomination, the GOP’s efforts to leverage unfounded fraud claims to constrain Democratic voting may help him earn a third term in office.