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Opinion Democrats refuse to be the only ones limited by reality

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

President Trump, during his State of the Union address, marked the turf on which he wants to fight for reelection. Daring the Democrats to veer hard to the left, he declared that “America will never be a socialist country.” Game on, answered Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the freshman dynamo who has energized her party’s Twitter base.

Though at 29 she’s too young to be the 2020 candidate against Trump, Ocasio-Cortez seeks to define the Democratic platform for the eventual nominee, whoever it is. To that end, she unveiled her vision for a “Green New Deal,” which promises not only an energy revolution of unprecedented scale, but also government-guaranteed jobs, wages, housing, vacations, nutritious menus, family leave and health care. As a proposed nonbinding resolution, the idea is in its symbolic stage, but what it symbolizes is way to the left of Denmark.

Socialism. It is to politics as New Year’s resolutions are to waistlines. No matter how reliably it fails, believers insist it will work next time. Sweden can swear off fad diets. Zimbabwe can flop like a week-old ThighMaster. There will always be socialists to insist they just need another shot.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) on Feb. 7 introduced a resolution they call the Green New Deal. (Video: The Washington Post)

Thus, some 25 years ago, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the debacle at Tiananmen Square, when socialism at last seemed thoroughly discredited, a friend from the academy noted that the only Marxists left in the world were tenured faculty on U.S. campuses. It has turned out to be a fruitful remnant. Given a quarter-century to inculcate the nation’s youth, this professoriate has raised a Democratic Party in which socialism is more popular than capitalism, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Intriguingly, one data point motivating today’s young leftists is the crippling student-loan debt they’ve been saddled with — money they borrowed to pay the steeply rising cost of having their brains washed. But the comfortably tenured radicals of the United States’ luxurious universities have not done their work alone. They’ve been helped by corrupt keepers of the capitalist flame: monopolists, rent-seekers and market manipulators who gave the world the Great Recession and demanded big tax cuts for their trouble. With friends like these, Adam Smith might say, who needs enemies?

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Still, some older Democrats are wary of tacking too far to port in Ocasio-Cortez’s armada. They bear scars of past campaigns when even the mild label “liberal” spelled doom. They believe the path to victory lies somewhere in the center, and the sputtering of left-wing candidates lends confirmation. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), for example, is a Green New Deal proponent, yet he appears helpless to stop the erosion of his support. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is another champion of the Deal, but is seemingly trapped in the weird web of her imaginary Cherokee heritage.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pretended to forget the name of Ocasio-Cortez’s manifesto, referring to the Green New Deal, with airy dismissiveness , as “the green dream, or whatever they call it.”

By their abundant pragmatism, these elders show they haven’t digested the lessons of 2016. Ocasio-Cortez clearly has. Politics in the age of Trump (and the age of social media) rewards the outsize gesture, the hyperbolic performance. Democrats with big dreams — especially the urgent dream of action on climate change — refuse to be the only ones held to the reality standard. If Trump can promise a 2,000-mile wall covered with solar panels that Mexico will pay for, then they’ll promise to eliminate fossil fuels in 10 years while ending poverty and putting a nice kale salad on every plate.

The goal is to whip voters into camps rather than lure them into coalitions.

Which brings us to the common ground that Trump shares with Ocasio-Cortez: Neither one believes in budgets. Central to the Green New Deal is a formulation known as modern monetary theory , which holds that the spending power of a sovereign government is limited only by its productive resources. Trump’s fiscal insanity — massive spending along with pleas for lower interest rates — is modern monetary theory in all but name, and his trillion-dollar deficits are inspirational for the authors of the Green New Deal.

For today’s left-wing Democrats, the theory promises to answer the critique made famous by the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The problem with socialism, Thatcher said from experience, is “you eventually run out of other people’s money.” Modern monetary theory says simply: Print some more.

Even the theory gurus agree, however, that printing more money can eventually lead to inflation, and enough inflation can turn a rich country into Venezuela. The mantra of the Green New Dealers — that “deficits don’t matter” — is only true until it isn’t.

Could it be that Trump’s reckless spending and his feckless Republican enablers will doom Democratic firebrands to live in the real world? Seems unfair. But the United States needs at least one party of reality.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

Read more:

Alexandra Petri: Green New Deal, do not deny Americans the tremendous gift of air travel

Megan McArdle: ‘We’re nuts!’ isn’t a great pitch for a Green New Deal

Eugene Robinson: A ‘Green New Deal’ sounds like pie in the sky. But we need it.

Paul Waldman: Here comes the Green New Deal. It could dramatically alter our political debate.