The recent extreme cold snap deep in the Southern regions of the country stressed our nation’s infrastructure in a variety of ways, but nowhere has the problem been more acute than Texas. Long story short, it appears that the main issue is that Texas has its own energy grid separate from the rest of the country, and does not have much in the way of weatherization of its energy infrastructure for the understandable reason that it almost never gets cold enough to matter. Almost.
What followed in the hours after the start of the crisis was a clinic in what not to do as a political figure dealing with a natural (or manmade) disaster.
Senator Ted Cruz, to cite just one of many examples, had a great deal of fun last year mocking California for its inability to keep the lights on during a heat wave.
Fast forward to this week, social media had a great deal of fun dunking on Senator Cruz as the lights went out in Texas, posting memes and side-by-side shots of the Senator’s tweets last year. The lesson? It might always feel good in the moment to pile on a political adversary for the retweets, but the internet never forgets.
As the week wore on, Sen. Cruz managed to make a rough Twitter news cycle into a full-fledged public relations nightmare by inexplicably escaping to Cancun with his family rather than stay in Texas and help his freezing constituents, changing his story about his reasoning multiple times and, finally, offering a meandering “apology” that seemed to blame the situation on his school-aged daughters. The revelation of his wife’s group text plotting the last minute trip to the Ritz Carlton Cancun was the final insult of the week
In a situation where a public official—or a head of company—makes an undeniable error in judgment, the best strategy is to take your medicine quickly, apologize without qualification, and work hard to demonstrate sincerity and tangible evidence of good faith efforts to repair the damage in the aftermath.
Governor Gregg Abbott should be the happiest person in Texas politics, because Senator Cruz’s fiasco overwhelmed the coverage and obscured the governor’s peculiar strategy of saying one thing to local media and another thing to Sean Hannity.
This might sound smart in the messaging meeting, but will not survive first contact with reality. The best way to deal with a crisis like this is to have your facts, message, and strategy nailed down and stick with one story based on straight facts. This is not the time to embellish with a bunch of adjectives. Especially in today’s media environment, you will pay the price for appearing duplicitous. Perhaps the rejoinder to this from some would be that Gregg Abbott and his team don’t care if online liberals get mad, they are giving the base what it wants—red meat anti-Green New Deal content. The problem with this approach is that being governor is still about governing, and with a legitimate crisis happening on your watch, even the appearance of playing political games will blow up in your face.
Governor Abbott is a canny politician and has a demonstrated record of competence and quality conservative governance, he had no need to pander on Fox News during an historic disaster in his state. The governor’s best move would have been to focus on solving the problem and communicating clearly with the public. The Hannity hit could have waited for a anotherday.
As we have seen during the coronavirus pandemic, what people want from their elected officials is competence, a steady hand, and results. They give their leaders wide latitude when facing a difficult situation, even if their decisions turn out to be wrong in retrospect (See Cuomo, Andrew). What they do not forgive is appearing to fail to take the situation seriously (See Trump, Donald). Governor Abbott, Senator Cruz, and other Texas politicians would do well to focus on what their constituents need now—and leave the politics for later.