How Ted Cruz Became the Least Sympathetic Politician in America

On Monday, Senator Ted Cruz urged his constituents to “stay home,” warning that winter weather beating down on Texas could be deadly. On Tuesday, he offered a shrug emoji and pronounced the situation “not good.” Then, on Wednesday, he decamped for a Ritz-Carlton resort in sun-drenched Cancún, escaping with his family from their freezing house.

And on Thursday, many Americans who had been battered by a deadly winter storm, on top of a nearly yearlong pandemic, finally found a reason to come together and lift their voices in a united chorus of rage.

FlyinTed, a homage to Donald J. Trump’s “Lyin’ Ted” nickname, began trending on Twitter. TMZ, the celebrity website, published photographs showing a Patagonia-fleece-clad Mr. Cruz waiting for his flight, hanging out in the United Club lounge and reading his phone from a seat in economy plus. The Texas Monthly, which bills itself as “the national magazine of Texas,” offered a list of curses to mutter against Mr. Cruz.

For a politician long reviled not just by Democrats but also by many of his Republican colleagues in Washington, Mr. Cruz is now the landslide winner for the title of the least sympathetic politician in America. After leaving freezing Texans to melt snow for water while he traveled to go work at the beach, Mr. Cruz offered little more than the classic political cliché — time with family — as an explanation, citing his daughters’ desire to go to Cancún as the reason for his trip. Even his dog became a player in the Cruz drama after a report that the Cruz family had left the aptly named Snowflake behind with a security guard, stirring fresh outrage on social media.

“He’s a person that people enjoy disliking,” said Bill Miller, a veteran Texas lobbyist and political consultant who has worked with members of both parties. “And now he’s been mortally wounded. It’s like he bailed out on the state at its most weakened moment. It’s an indefensible action.”

While Mr. Cruz is hardly the first politician to face blowback after paying his way out of hardship, the junior senator from Texas presents a uniquely rich target. The conservative firebrand has spent much of his career gleefully pointing out the perceived hypocrisies of both political opponents and Republican allies — a personality trait that set off a national wave of schadenfreude as the country watched Mr. Cruz flip-flopping over his tropical getaway on Thursday.

ImageMr. Cruz spent one night in Cancún before returning to Texas on Thursday.
Credit…Reuters

Throughout his political career, Mr. Cruz has united politicians from former President George W. Bush to Senator Rand Paul in mutual distaste. “Lucifer in the flesh,” John Boehner, the former House speaker, said of Mr. Cruz in 2016. Even Satanists could not abide the comparison; a spokesman for the satanic Temple quickly released a statement saying that the group wanted “nothing to do” with politicians like Mr. Cruz.

If Mr. Cruz didn’t engender much good will to begin with, given his haranguing style and often hollow theatrics, he has shown how even the most experienced, ambitious politicians can undercut themselves with a truly rookie move. Recent polling in Texas shows his approval rating among Republicans in the state around 76 percent. He won’t face voters for re-election until 2024, giving him plenty of time to rehabilitate his image.

But the trip was a surprisingly tone-deaf misstep for a politician known to have big ambitions. Mr. Cruz, who already ran for president once in 2016, is widely viewed as wanting to mount a second bid. And as every politician from the president to a small-town mayor knows, few events wreak havoc on a political reputation faster than a natural disaster.

“He’s a smart, sharp, clever, ambitious guy, but what he did today was a brain-dead moment,” Mr. Miller said. “He will be reminded of it for the rest of his life from everyone.”

Mr. Cruz came to Washington in 2013, a Tea Party-crowned hero determined to upend the staid Senate with conservative opposition that would soon become a bastion of the party. His first showdown came just two months later, when he forced a government shutdown with a 21-hour Senate speech, in which he theatrically read “Green Eggs and Ham.”

The move ended rather anticlimactically when the Senate voted to take up a budget bill that failed to elicit concessions from Democrats. His effort made him a hero among conservatives but was the start of frustration toward him among Republican Party leaders, who viewed his efforts as impractical and potentially self-damaging.

Yet Mr. Cruz saw political benefits in running against his own party, even if his tactics largely failed to accomplish much policy change. He slammed fellow Republicans as insiders; accused Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, of lying; and flirted with conservative groups that were raising money to primary some of his colleagues.

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Credit…Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times

His opportunism often enraged fellow Republicans. After voting against federal aid for Hurricane Sandy, Mr. Cruz lobbied Congress five years later for billions of dollars as Texas cleaned up from Hurricane Harvey.

“Senator Cruz was playing politics in 2012, trying to make himself look like the biggest conservative in the world,” Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said in 2017. “What I said at the time, both to him and to everyone else, was if you represent a coastal state, don’t do this, because your day is going to come.”

In the end, it was another man who would successfully leverage Mr. Cruz’s firebrand tactics into the presidency. After a 2016 primary campaign in which he called Mr. Trump a “pathological liar,” a “serial philanderer,” an “utterly amoral” conspiracy-monger and a peerless narcissist, Mr. Cruz embarked on a major reputational repair campaign aimed at wooing back the new president and the conservative base that supported him.

Mr. Cruz’s ability to seemingly set aside some deeply personal insults — Mr. Trump suggested Mr. Cruz’s wife was unattractive and insinuated without evidence that his father had been involved in the John F. Kennedy assassination — became further evidence for his critics of the senator’s shameless political posturing. This year, he led the charge to reverse Mr. Trump’s election loss, loudly promoting his baseless claims of fraud and perpetuating conservative fantasies about a stolen election. Last week, he defended the former president’s speech at his rally before the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, saying his words were not an impeachable offense.

“Until Donald Trump came along, this guy was the biggest performer in conservative politics,” said Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and housing secretary. “He was the one that was trying to position himself as the id of the conservative moment.”

Mr. Castro added, “He comes off as fake and he comes off as much more concerns about himself than anyone else.”

Texas Democrats like Mr. Castro saw fresh opportunities in the trip to Cancún, quickly calling for Mr. Cruz’s resignation. Republican officials in the state, many sitting in their own cold homes, largely stayed silent.

“Candidly, I haven’t been following people’s vacation plans,” Gov. Greg Abbott told reporters at a news conference on Thursday.

The trip is “something that he has to answer to his constituents about,” Allen West, the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, told The Associated Press. “I’m here trying to take care of my family and look after my friends and others that are still without power.”

But in his moment of crisis, Mr. Cruz’s four-year campaign to reclaim his position as a darling of conservatives appeared to be paying off, as several of Mr. Trump’s allies rushed to his defense. Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, said the senator shouldn’t have apologized, and the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. complained that people were trying to “cancel Cancún Cruz” — a defense wrapped in a classically Trumpian insulting nickname.

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Credit…Eric Thayer for The New York Times

Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and a friend of Mr. Trump’s, cast the trip as akin to Mr. Cruz’s dropping his daughters off at soccer practice — never mind that this outing involved a plane flight to a $309-per-night resort.

“Now, you went and you took your daughters to Cancún and you came back,” Mr. Hannity told Mr. Cruz in a Thursday night interview. “I think you can be a father and be the senator of Texas all at the same time and make a round-trip, quick drop-off, quick trip, and come home.”

And the conservative pundit Ben Shapiro eagerly dismissed what he said was a Democratic insistence on “performative” politics during a power crisis — a curious defense of Mr. Cruz, who announced the selection of a running mate, Carly Fiorina, six days before dropping out of the presidential primary race in 2016.

Congressional aides and members of Congress say there’s quite a lot that a senator can do to help in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, including coordinating relief efforts, pressuring the federal government for additional resources and disseminating crucial public safety information.

“After Katrina, I actually set up more offices and moved staff down from Jackson to work,” said Trent Lott, the Republican former majority leader and senator from Mississippi. “You do extra things after a disaster.”

When it came to explaining his own trip to a Mexican resort, Mr. Cruz showed unusual restraint. After pictures circulated online of him boarding a flight, aides said the trip was a previously planned vacation. Then, his office said he was simply escorting his daughters down to Cancún to join friends — like any “good dad” in the midst of an enormous meltdown of basic societal infrastructure — and had always planned to return on Thursday.

After nearly a day of uncharacteristic silence, Mr. Cruz returned home on Thursday, bearing a Texas flag mask, a suspiciously large suitcase and a classic political excuse.

“It was obviously a mistake and in hindsight I wouldn’t have done it. I was trying to be a dad,” he told reporters on Thursday, a striking admission from a politician who built his career on ceding little ground. “From the moment I sat on the plane, I began really second-guessing that decision.”

For others in his home state, there was little to guess about the incident.

“Nothing brings Texans together quite like the opportunity to rip Ted Cruz a new one,” Gene Wu, a Texas state representative, wrote on Twitter.

While Mr. Cruz is hardly the first politician to face blowback after paying his way out of hardship, the junior senator from Texas presents a uniquely rich target. The conservative firebrand has spent much of his career gleefully pointing out the perceived hypocrisies of both political opponents and Republican allies — a personality trait that set off a national wave of schadenfreude as the country watched Mr. Cruz flip-flopping over his tropical getaway on Thursday.

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