New Congress

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, left, and D-N.Y., Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., center, walk down the House steps to take a group photograph of the House Democratic women members of the 116th Congress on the East Front Capitol Plaza on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, as the 116th Congress begins. Also pictured is Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., right. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

I feel a little guilty writing this column because “AOC” has already gotten more publicity than she deserves. The very fact that you are likely to know that I am referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — as though she were FDR, JFK or LBJ — is a sign of her success in penetrating the national consciousness in an astonishingly short period.

In traditional Washington terms, this 29-year-old former bartender is a person of little significance — one of the most junior members of the House, she can expect to wait decades before exercising any real power in this hierarchical institution. But, being telegenic, down-to-earth and quick-witted, she is already a multimedia star. She has 2.1 million Twitter followers — more than Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) or Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) — and she was just interviewed on “60 Minutes,” television’s top-rated news program.

Ocasio-Cortez has been gifted with enemies of singular ineptitude. Right-wingers have attacked her for supposedly being a limousine liberal because she grew up in New York’s Westchester County. In fact, she grew up in Yorktown Heights, a decidedly middle-class community in Westchester County. They then attacked her for dressing like, well, a member of Congress. Finally, for the coup de grace — to them, not Ocasio-Cortez — her critics circulated a video of her dancing on a rooftop in college, thereby proving that she is — gasp — cool and fun-loving.

These dimwitted, ad hominem criticisms only engender sympathy for Ocasio-Cortez — as do her skillful parries. A social-media black belt, Ocasio-Cortez struck back against criticism of her outfit by tweeting: “If I walked into Congress wearing a sack, they would laugh & take a picture of my backside. If I walk in with my best sale-rack clothes, they laugh & take a picture of my backside. Dark hates light — that’s why you tune it out. Shine bright & keep it pushing.”

The real problem with Ocasio-Cortez is not how she dresses or where she comes from. It’s that she is an uber-progressive — a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” — who cares more about ideological correctness than factual correctness. The Post’s Fact Checker has documented her reign of error. She claimed that “unemployment is low because everyone has two jobs” (only 5 percent of people actually have two jobs); that “ICE is required to fill 34,000 beds with detainees every single night” (an urban myth); and that the “upper-middle class does not exist anymore in America” (not only does it exist, it’s growing).

Ocasio-Cortez has been particularly inventive, if not especially persuasive, in trying to explain how she would pay for her socialist agenda, including free health care, free college tuition, and jobs. She mystified observers when she said: “Why aren’t we incorporating the cost of all the funeral expenses of those who died because they can’t afford access to health care? That is part of the cost of our system.” That is the kind of word salad you expect from our president. Worse, she earned four Pinocchios when she asserted that the Pentagon had a pool of $21 trillion that was unaccounted for, and that could be used to pay two-thirds of the cost of Medicare-for-all. That the Pentagon has trouble tracking transactions doesn’t mean it has vaults full of cash that can be raided for progressive priorities.

Anyone, of course, can err. What makes Ocasio-Cortez’s errors especially troubling was her response when called out by Anderson Cooper on “60 Minutes.” “I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right,” she complained.

Ocasio-Cortez partially redeemed herself with a tweet the next day: “Fact-checking is critically important. It’s not always fun. But that’s okay! It pushes me to be better.” But her initial response displayed a cavalier attitude toward the truth similar to that of President Trump — who is, to be sure, a far more energetic purveyor of falsehoods. Her answer was reminiscent of what Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, said on CNN when asked by Jake Tapper about the president’s baffling claim that the Soviet Union was right to invade Afghanistan in order to combat terrorism. “I think those are comments the president made born out of frustration from where we are, and I’m not too concerned about the details,” Mulvaney responded.

For both the far left and the far right, facts are an irksome “detail” of scant importance. What really matters is being “morally right.” If this attitude takes hold among the broader populace, responsible self-government becomes impossible, and radical demagogues will succeed reactionary ones.

In some ways, Ocasio-Cortez reminds me of Sarah Palin, a comparison neither woman will appreciate. Palin was another talented young communicator who made a big splash in national politics before having her lack of knowledge painfully exposed. Instead of studying up, Palin gave up any pretense of seriousness and has now disappeared from the debate. This is a cautionary tale for Ocasio-Cortez. She is a politician of immense gifts who can have an outsize impact — but only if she masters the intricacies of policy and curbs her fatal attraction to political celebrity and vacuous soundbites. Trump has gone dismayingly far with his reliance on “alternative facts,” but it’s not a formula that his opponents should emulate.

Max Boot is a columnist with The Washington Post.