Having jetted off to Cancun as his state faced its worst winter disaster in decades, Senator Ted Cruz returned with his tail between his legs – and was met with fury from all sides. The famously divisive and aggressive senator may not be up for re-election until 2024, but there are signs that he may finally have gone too far.
Along with the expected protests at the airport and barrage of furious tweets, he faced the ire of his state’s largest newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, whose editorial board fired off a merciless editorial calling for his resignation. “As Texans froze, Ted Cruz got a ticket to paradise,” the paper wrote. “Paradise can have him.”
Whether or not Mr Cruz actually resigns over the ill-advised holiday – which he has called a mistake – it will stain his reputation forever. But then again, his reputation has been poor for years. In fact, he is famously one of the most disliked people in Congress, and not just by the other party.
First elected to his seat in 2012 as an anti-establishment Tea Party candidate, Mr Cruz entered Congress as a populist right-wing belligerent who commanded a base of angry, hardline voters. He quickly established a reputation in Washington as an opponent of compromise, bipartisanship and pragmatism – and unlike some conservative blowhards, he put his money where his mouth was.
In 2013, Mr Cruz really made his mark by leading a Republican effort to shut down the federal government unless funding for Obamacare was stripped from the continuing resolution needed to keep it running. He gave a 21-hour speech to demonstrate the strength of his opposition to the healthcare law, but it had no effect. Toward the end of the speech, he compared it to a Bataan Death March – a remark for which he was forced to apologise when World War II veterans reacted with outrage.
By the time he jumped into the Republican presidential in 2015, Mr Cruz had built a strong brand on the party’s right flank as a hardliner. Other candidates were unsparing in their assessment of him; Lindsey Graham, who ran a failed campaign of his own, famously said: “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.”
Riffing on Mr Cruz’s unlikeability became a theme of the campaign coverage.Quartz featured a neurologist explaining “why Ted Cruz’s face makes you uncomfortable”. The senator drew flack for associating with hardcore evangelical conservatives, claiming that there is no evidence for global warming, and suggesting all but dismantling the federal government.
But Mr Cruz’s 2016 campaign saw his reputation for nastiness almost wholly eclipsed by Donald Trump, who made the Texan senator his top Republican target as the other contenders fell away. At various points, Mr Trump falsely suggested Mr Cruz was ineligible to be president and claimed his father may have played a role in the assassination of John F Kennedy (which he didn’t).
Mr Cruz responded furiously, calling Mr Trump “utterly amoral”, a “narcissist”, a “pathological liar” and a “serial philanderer”. He famously declined to endorse the nominee on the stage at that summer’s Republican National Convention, a decision that got him loudly booed by the enthusiastically Trumpist crowd.
Yet in the last four years, he has – like many in his party – undergone a remarkable metamorphosis into a hardcore Trump supporter. This process culminated in his insisting with no evidence that the 2020 election results were suspicious, and standing up to object to their certification even after pro-Trump insurrectionists had violently stormed the Capitol on the hunt for members of Congress whom they thought were standing in Mr Trump’s way.
Mr Cruz is now loathed for something more in line with a garden-variety political scandal: the shame of abandoning his constituents in their hour of dire need for the selfish purposes of a sunny vacation. That decision would spell trouble for any politician – but for one who has made a personal brand out of his disdain for meeting people halfway, it could be truly disastrous.
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