In the US last week, the only thing more widespread than the brutal weather was the mockery of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and his muy tonto Mexican vacation.
Maybe this is what President Biden had in mind at his inauguration when he pleaded for unity.
In a matter of just a few hours, Cruz committed a cascade of political gaffes: he fled a natural disaster, blamed it on his whiny kids, lied about his return, left the family dog home alone and landed back in a freezing Houston wearing his resort wear.
Somewhere over the Yucatan, his chances of winning the 2024 GOP presidential nomination died.
But Cruz’s abandonment of Texas—where scores of people died in the midst of freakish winter weather and power failures—reflected not just one senator’s bad judgment.
It was about the difference between real and pantomime governance, between competence and theatre.
By opting to escape to the Ritz-Carlton in Cancun in the midst of his state’s collapse, Cruz was revealing a truth: US Senators don’t really do a whole lot. They argue and pontificate, but managing crises like natural disasters—from hurricanes to pandemics—falls to governors, mayors and other local officials.
That’s been clear for the past year as Covid-19 laid siege to the US. In the first months of the crises, local officials from both parties begged Washington for help with critical supplies and consistent policies. But Donald Trump, whose role as a Titan of Business was always just an act, was unable and unwilling to help out.
In the end, it probably cost him his job. But 74 million supporters were willing to ignore his competence, too enamoured of the show to demand more results.
That’s because the allure of performative politics—as participant and spectator—is powerful. Here in the US, Trump defined the agenda, and we spent the past five years talking about kneeling football players and “radical socialist agendas” instead of infrastructure and college tuition debt. Among his Senate enablers was Cruz, a leader among the GOP Senators who cynically refused to certify Joe Biden’s election, helping fuel the Jan. 6 insurrection.
President Biden wants to focus on policy, but it’s easier to dwell on sideshows like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, whose tinfoil-hat theories are more diverting than Iranian nuclear policy. This approach has reached its logical end with the election in November of Rep. Madison Cawthorn, 25, of North Carolina, who openly told other GOP members of Congress that “I have built my staff round comms rather than legislation.”
At least he admits it.
Real governance, alas, has its perils. New York Governor Andrew Coumo was a hero back in the spring, holding daily Covid-19 press conferences where his mix of empathy and seeming competence dazzled viewers and media alike (full disclosure: I was among the dazzled). He wrote a book about leadership, and seemed on the way to winning an unprecedented fourth term in 2024. There was talk of a presidential run.
But Cuomo’s sheen of perfection had a flaw. His decisions involving elderly nursing home patients may have led to many unnecessary deaths—deaths that Cuomo and his staff effectively obscured for months through clever bookkeeping and political stalling.
But now the lid has been ripped off the deception, and Cuomo has responded with a mix of rage, accusations and hair-splitting. It’s an ugly spectacle, and Cuomo’s reputation for competence is in tatters. With New York finally able to see a light at the end of the Covid tunnel, Cuomo looks to become one of its end-game victims.
Cruz and Cuomo are very different politicians. One did too little, the other possibly too much. They approach politics from completely opposite directions, the performative vs. the pro-active. They’ve both managed to succeed on their own terms, though these crises may prove insurmountable.
They have almost nothing in common—except hubris.