As Senator Ted Cruz endured the torments of public scorn on Thursday—outed by fellow passengers on his way to a warm Cancun vacation, as millions of fellow Texans suffered from freezing temperatures and a catastrophic electricity failure—I had a sudden uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach: There but for the grace of God go I. Or at least someone I used to work for.
It was Sunday, February 9, 1969, and New York Mayor John Lindsay was in the middle of a tough fight for reelection. I was working as his speechwriter at the time. The Yale-educated mayor from the tony East Side had his share of political baggage already, with many Brooklyn and Queens voters convinced he was too “Manhattan-centric.” That day had a typically bleak midwinter forecast, a mix of rain and slush. Instead, New York got hammered with what became known as the Blizzard of 1969. Fifteen inches of snow pounded the city, falling with particular force in east Queens. A combination of factors—light work crews on a Sunday, budget cutbacks, snowdrifts high enough to block the plows—left neighborhoods trapped for days.
Lindsay was savvy enough to head to Queens in person, but unlike the heroic reception he got a year earlier, when he walked the streets of Harlem after the death of Martin Luther King, he was greeted with many colorful suggestions about where he might go and what anatomical feats he might consider. Thanks in part to the slow response to the snow, Lindsay lost the Republican primary—and although he managed to win one more term running as an independent, his political reputation never quite recovered.
“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” Mark Twain said. Voters, though, won’t excuse politicians who throw their hands up—or, worse, turn tail when disaster strikes. Weather might be the least controllable force a politician faces, but it comes with a severe price for mishandling its consequences. And it’s not clear that Cruz, despite a quick return home, will be able to dig himself out.
Chicago Mayor Mike Bilandic fared even worse than Lindsay a decade later. A loyal foot soldier in the machine built by the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, he was considered a shoo-in for reelection—until a massive January storm dumped 20 inches of snow on the city, paralyzing trains, buses and traffic. With help of a powerful political ad shot as the snow was falling, insurgent candidate Jane Byrne upset Bilandic in the Democratic primary and went on to become the city’s first woman mayor.
These stories of winter havoc have survived to chill the hearts of politicians for decades, along with other tales of faulty, or clumsy, or disastrous responses to crises of one sort or another. Think of President George W. Bush staring out the window of Air Force One as it flew over Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, or his shout-out to the over-his-head Federal Emergency Management Agency director (“heckuva job, Brownie”). Think of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, lounging at a public beach he closed to the public in the wake of a government shutdown.
More recently, think of Donald Trump throwing paper towels at a hurricane-ravaged crowd in Puerto Rico, or blaming the California wildfires on inept forest management, and puzzling the president of Finland by his references to “raking.” Trump’s die-hard supporters didn’t see any of it as gaffes, but add to that his persistent minimizing of another disaster, the Covid-19 pandemic, and you have a pattern of indifference to suffering that, his pollsters say, ultimately cost him reelection.
In the case of Cruz, his missteps are worthy of a simulation where the player tests just how many wrong moves he can make in a row. (Leave in the midst of crisis? Check. Leave just a few months after attacking a Democratic mayor for going to Mexico during a Covid-19 lockdown? Check. Ask the overstressed Houston Police Department for assistance at the airport? Check. Claim you meant to return immediately when the airline says otherwise? Clearly, Cruz was not up to speed on how leaders best respond to a natural crisis; President Barack Obama’s response to Hurricane Sandy, his rapid marshaling of forces and his visit to the affected areas won him bipartisan praise.
For Cruz, are there are any lessons the senator might learn from the past? There’s one that quickly comes to mind, even though executing it may be challenging: Apologize.
In his reelection, Lindsay cut an ad that began: “I guessed wrong about the weather before the city’s biggest snowstorm. And that was a mistake.” It may not have been much; but voters wanted to hear this handsome Manhattan WASP scrape a little before the citizens of the outer boroughs. By contrast, Chicago Mayor Bilandic never apologized for the chaos that engulfed his city, at one point saying that a return to 70 percent efficiency was good enough. Christie was even more stubborn, noting that use of the beach was one of the perquisites of the office.
Cruz took the right first step—on his return to Texas Thursday afternoon, he acknowledged he’d made the wrong call: “Look, it was obviously a mistake, and in hindsight I wouldn’t have done it. … I started having second thoughts almost the moment I sat down on the plane … leaving when so many Texans were hurting didn’t feel right.”
The most promising course from now might be to go all-in; to apologize not just for his departure, but for his earlier ridiculing of California for its energy woes, for making a family vacation his first priority. And if he wants to change the subject, he might embrace a point that experts have long pointed to as a long-term dilemma for politicians when it comes to disasters: That while voters are acutely aware of immediate responses to a crisis, they never reward leaders who try to prevent the next one.
University of Pennsylvania professor Dan Hopkins has pointed out that disaster preparedness is extremely cost-effective policy that just doesn’t register with the electorate the way failure does. “As voters, we pay attention in the wake of disasters, and we reward or punish incumbents based on their actions,” he wrote.
“But when the cameras are elsewhere, we’re not nearly as good about rewarding the incumbents who are getting ready for the next disaster.”
Taking that path would require from Ted Cruz a strong dose of humility, and a willingness to step away from scoring cheap political points in favor of an approach that might actually make things better. A glance of the senator’s record tells us just how likely that response will be.