The single biggest fault line in today’s Democratic Party is between those who think that expanding international trade is the key to our prosperity, and those who think that it’s what’s putting that prosperity at risk. And in that debate, last fall’s midterms seemed to boost the latter faction: from Virginia to Montana, voters chose Democrats who promised to fight future trade deals and renegotiate old ones. “Free trade has definitely left the building,” declared Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, writing in the Financial Times the day after the election.
Few congressional districts in the country were more receptive to that anti–free trade pitch than Ohio’s Seventeenth, a gritty, blue-collar region of Irish, Italian, and Polish Americans in the northeastern part of the state, along the Pennsylvania border. For much of the twentieth century, the local area’s economy was centered on the steel industry, and it was devastated by the closure of many of the area’s largest steel plants in the late 1970s and early ’80s, thanks to increased global competition. Auto and auto-parts factories remained the only large-scale employers, but in the wake of the free trade deals of the ’90s many of those jobs were lost as well. Today, telemarketing, which offers almost exclusively minimum-wage work, is one of the area’s few real growth industries.
Unsurprisingly, an antipathy toward increased global trade pervades the region’s political culture. Sherrod Brown—perhaps the most prominent free trade opponent of any Democratic candidate last year—swept to victory in Ohio’s U.S. Senate race, in part by winning 73 percent of the vote in Trumbull and Mahoning counties, the heart of the Seventeenth District. Says William Binning, the chair of the political science department at Youngstown State University: “We’ve been protectionists since McKinley”—a local product himself.
The district is represented by Tim Ryan, a six-foot-three former high school quarterback who was elected in 2002 at the age of twenty-nine and remains one of the youngest members in the House. Not surprisingly, given his constituents’ profile, Ryan is known as a hard-nosed economic populist, recently sponsoring a bill that threatens to impose tariffs on Chinese goods in response to China’s manipulation of its currency. He’s also a definite up-and-comer in the Democratic caucus, and, thanks to some fiery anti-Bush speeches, a favorite of liberal bloggers, who see him as the archetype of the youthful new brand of “fighting Dem.”
So it was something of a surprise that, when Ryan gave an expansive speech at the Akron Press Club in January, he said nothing about fighting free trade deals, or unfair global competition, or the evils of corporate outsourcing. Instead, he began by lecturing his audience on the phenomenon of “base transition,” which he described as a principle of thermodynamics in which the electrons in an atom begin to move in the same direction. “Our country and our community and our world are in the midst of a base transition,” he continued, requiring us “to move away from the old way of thinking.”
Inching closer to his theme, Ryan segued into a discussion of the ideas of Alvin Toffler—a name, it’s safe to say, that has rarely, if ever, been invoked at the Akron Press Club before. The futurist writer’s new book, Revolutionary Wealth, Ryan explained, argues that human civilization has passed through two complete stages, or “waves”—the agricultural and the industrial—and that we’re now in the third wave, which Toffler calls “knowledge-based.” By substituting “ever-more-refined knowledge for the traditional factors of industrial production—land, labor and capital,” Toffler and his wife, Heidi, write, we’ll soon be able to drastically curtail global poverty, and “unlock countless opportunities and new life trajectories.”
For a politician whose district has essentially been devastated over the last thirty years by the shift from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy to be touting the work of one of the foremost champions of that shift was, to say the least, a little odd. But Ryan told the crowd he’d been so impressed with Revolutionary Wealth that he’d called Toffler, and last year the two had ended up talking for hours in Ryan’s Capitol office. (He later gave Sherrod Brown, among others, a copy of the book.)
Ryan is tall, dark, and broad-shouldered. His speaking style can be fiery when he gets carried away, but in Akron that night, in a suit and tie, he seemed to be making an effort to come off as a sober, thoughtful, and mature adult in front of the local party activists, business and labor leaders, and daily news reporters—many of them twenty or thirty years older than he—in the crowd. Still, as he returned to the theme of a world in transition, a faint edge appeared in his voice. “Our kids and our grandkids are gonna grow up and say, ‘When all this stuff was going on, what were you doing? Were you trying to hold on to something that was no longer existing? Were you the one pushing the edge?’” he warned the crowd. “‘Were you participating in this? Or were you obstructing this natural evolutionary flow of our species?’” He ended by evoking Bobby Kennedy’s promise of “weariness, hardship, and sacrifice.”
Ryan’s listeners appeared to receive his speech as a vague but inspiring call for idealism and public service—“Ryan Presents Concept of Team” was the headline the next day in the Akron Beacon Journal—and the applause at the end was warm. But hidden amid the heroic Kennedy allusions and the slightly self-conscious references to atoms, electrons, and waves of civilization was a profound challenge to the audience: the industrial economy isn’t coming back. He couldn’t, of course, come out and say that directly to a roomful of people for whom the industrial economy represented the greatest period of stability and prosperity they’d ever known, which was why Ryan needed Toffler and his sometimes flaky futurism—to act as a kind of sugarcoating for the pill he was asking his audience to swallow. “In our part of the country, we have a very strong cultural tie to steel,” Ryan told me later. “And whether we like it or not, the world has changed.” The speech, he said, “was a challenge to change your way of thinking.”
Ryan’s audience may not have known quite what to make of that challenge. But his faith in capitalism to deliver a better way of life for his constituents—which echoes both Bill Clinton and even Newt Gingrich, another Toffler fan—suggests an optimism and vision that’s hard to find among the current Democratic leadership. Through his youth, energy, and political skills, Ryan has earned a place as a leader of the younger Democrats in Congress; one leadership aide calls him “a rising star.” Now he looks to be groping, hesitantly, toward an economic vision for his region and his country that borrows, and reaches beyond, both wings of the current polarized intraparty trade debate. It’s a vision that appears to resonate with Americans of Ryan’s generation and younger. And, as with other elements of Ryan’s political persona, it could be where the party, and the country, are headed.
Despite its name, few places in America feel less young than Youngstown, Ohio. Most of the abandoned steel plants were demolished in the 1980s and ’90s, leaving acres of vacant industrial land, much of it contaminated and unsafe for new development. Downtown, the once-thriving retail outlets have long since fled to the suburbs.
Like many Rust Belt communities, the Youngstown area suffers from an exodus of young people each year. Perhaps as a result, youth has always been somewhere near the center of Ryan’s political appeal. The product of an Irish American father who left the family when Tim was a child and an Italian American mother who worked at the Trumbull County Clerk of Courts, Ryan became something of a local celebrity as a star high school quarterback. “Football is God here,” says Jimmy Fogarty, who went to high school with Ryan and later made his campaign commercials. That was also where Ryan’s leadership qualities first became evident. “On the football field, he could get people to believe in him,” Fogarty adds, “but he could also get people to believe in themselves, as a group.” Ryan went to Youngstown State on a football scholarship, but soon blew his knee out, and transferred to Bowling Green. Today, he speaks and moves with the comfortable but slightly subdued manner of the former athlete who knows that his better days, at least on the field, are behind him.
While in college, Ryan says, he found himself skipping class to read political news in the paper. The summer before his senior year, he interned in the Washington, D.C., office of his congressman, Jim Traficant, to which he returned after graduation as a paid staffer. Traficant, who dressed—and wore his toupee—in the manner of a particularly flamboyant used-car salesman, styled himself a principled fighter for his downtrodden constituents against the overweening power of the federal government. He was nominally a Democrat, but made little effort to get along with anyone in Washington. Still, he remained popular with the voters of the Seventeenth District, where his fiery style and ostentatious commitment to his struggling community went down well. Ryan, who early on saw Traficant as a mentor, couldn’t help but notice.
After law school in New Hampshire, Ryan returned to the Youngstown area in 2000 and ran for a vacant state senate seat. Other than his mother and his grandmother, both of whom had long worked for the local government, he had no real political base. What he did have, however, was a glimmer of celebrity left over from his football days. This helped him build a team of young people who served as his campaign’s foot soldiers, and their youthful energy propelled him to victory. (A high school friend of Ryan’s, who helped on the campaign and went on to study film, was so inspired by the experience that he used it as the basis for his first movie, Steel Valley, which tells the story of a local boy who restores hope to a depressed northeast Ohio community by taking on the entrenched political establishment in an unlikely run for office.)
Once in Columbus, Ryan remembered who had helped get him there. He began to develop an identity as a voice for young people, sponsoring bills designed to make higher education more affordable and organizing local college students to pressure the state legislature on the issue. “We just weren’t getting any lobbying from kids, [who are] the people consuming the product,” he told me.
But he had his eye on bigger things. In 2002, Traficant was imprisoned for bribery, and Ryan, at twenty-eight, decided to run for his former boss’s seat in Congress. In the Democratic primary, he faced six opponents, including an incumbent congressman, Tom Sawyer, who had lost his seat in the previous year’s redistricting. About 20 percent of the voters in the redrawn Seventeenth had been Sawyer’s constituents in his old district. In addition, Sawyer was backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and he outspent Ryan six to one.
Still, Ryan had some openings. He hammered away at Sawyer for having voted for NAFTA and GATT, trade agreements that many voters blamed for the region’s economic woes. He also aped Traficant’s passionate style, which fit the district better than Sawyer’s dry, scholarly manner. As he had done during the state senate race, he mobilized hordes of young people, and used them to stage so many street-corner rallies that the local newspaper ran a cartoon lampooning the tactic. Ryan’s youth, according to David Skolnick, who covered the race closely for the Youngstown Vindicator, “struck a chord with young people, but also with older people, because they were seeing their children and grandchildren leave the area.” Many of these voters responded to Ryan’s commitment, as a young person himself, to turn the region’s fortunes around.
In the end, it wasn’t close: Ryan got 41 percent of the votes in a crowded field, beating Sawyer by 13 points. Given the district’s solidly Democratic profile, the general election was largely a formality, but Ryan’s GOP opponent nonetheless tried to make an issue of his age, attacking him for having used a fake ID and getting into a barroom brawl in college. The charges, though, only seemed to add to Ryan’s appeal among voters who had grown used to Traficant’s rebellious style. (Talking to a documentary filmmaker covering the race, he laughed them off: “I’m a very bad person, unfit for public office, and yet to be rehabilitated.”) Ryan cut himself shaving on election-day morning, but won comfortably.
That sense of youthful exuberance was crucial when Ryan first got to Washington in January 2003. Congressional Democrats were at perhaps their lowest ebb in over half a century. They had just lost seats in both chambers, after a campaign in which many—including Max Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam—had been accused of being soft on Osama bin Laden. In the House, Tom DeLay’s GOP majority treated them with sneering disdain, ignoring their input on legislation, and once even using the Capitol police to break up one of their meetings. Some Democrats responded by trying to cut deals to protect their individual priorities, while the more senior members, unused over the course of their long careers to such strong-arming, were shell-shocked and unsure how to respond. When they did protest, the press—distracted by Bush’s popularity and the initial success of the war in Iraq—largely ignored their complaints.
The Republicans’ high-handed style didn’t sit well with Ryan, who says that he and his best friend in Congress, fellow freshman Kendrick Meek of Florida—Ryan calls them “the young Turks”—were “outraged at what was going on.” Soon, they had a platform to fight back. Nancy Pelosi, who had recently become the Democratic leader, and was looking to put a fresh face on the party, asked Ryan and Meek to co-chair the 30-Something Working Group, a new party initiative designed to reach out to younger voters. The group’s formation presaged a deliberate effort by Pelosi to give younger members more exposure, and to upend the system of strict seniority by which the Democratic caucus had long been governed—a system which Gingrich had already discarded for the GOP almost a decade before. “In the past, junior members like us really would have had to wait our turn, and were told to keep quiet and not make any waves,” says Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who joined the group after coming to Congress in 2005. “[Pelosi] encouraged us to make waves.”
The younger members were more comfortable with the new communications technology that has profoundly changed politics in the last few years. (Ryan keeps in touch with friends in Ohio by text message.) But just as important, they also seemed to understand better than their elders the ways in which Washington has changed over the last decade or so, making old-style bipartisan conciliation less viable, and requiring instead a more confrontational political style, and the kind of cutthroat tactics pioneered by the GOP. “We really felt like it was important to fight fire with fire,” says Wasserman Schultz.
Starting in the late 1980s, Gingrich and a band of GOP backbenchers developed a kind of under-the-radar national following on CSPAN by taking to the House floor late at night and using media-friendly stunts and hard-hitting rhetoric to go after the Democratic Congress. By 2004, Ryan and Meek (joined the following year by Wasserman Schultz) were mimicking that tactic, and slowly gaining a similar notoriety. To depict Congress’s fealty to the administration, for instance, they dragged out a massive inflatable rubber stamp. “We were coming to play,” says Ryan. Their energy and fearlessness also seemed to galvanize the older members. “We would hear on the floor [from more senior members]: ‘Keep going, guys, keep going.’”
But it wasn’t until October 2004 that Ryan attracted national attention. For a week or so, blogs had been suggesting that if President Bush were reelected, he’d institute a military draft, prompting House Republicans to angrily denounce the rumor. Sensing an opportunity, Ryan took to the House floor. “Why are people believing this big Internet hoax?” he asked. “It’s the same people who told us Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11, the same people who told us Saddam had weapons of mass destruction ... the same people who told us we’d be greeted as liberators, not occupiers.” By this point, Ryan was shouting, and waving his arms in front of him like Peyton Manning at the line of scrimmage. “So please forgive the students of this country for not believing what you’re saying.”
Coming at a time when even the party’s presidential nominee appeared hesitant to forthrightly challenge Bush on the war, Ryan’s speech thrilled Democratic partisans around the country, and made him an Internet celebrity—it was posted on YouTube under the headline “Democrat Tim Ryan Kicks Bush’s Ass.” But it was also a very smart political play, and one that, in its borderline dishonesty, seemed to take another page out of the modern Republican playbook. Democrats couldn’t explicitly declare that reelecting Bush would lead to a draft, since there wasn’t any real evidence for the claim. But they wanted to encourage such fears, and to keep the issue in the news—particularly in Ohio, the election’s key swing state. Ryan’s speech was a perfect way to accomplish that.
The speech also helped cement Ryan’s burgeoning reputation as a spokesman in Congress for young people. That reputation was enhanced the following spring, when, along with Meek and Wasserman Schultz, Ryan led the Democratic push to turn young people against Bush’s Social Security plan. The 30-Somethings called in to morning radio shows, appeared at campus events, and held online town-hall meetings, all designed to convince younger Americans of the dangers of Bush’s approach. It’s hard to gauge the effect of their efforts, but they sure didn’t hurt. Young people were initially the segment of the population most open to privatization: a February 2005 Pew poll found that 66 percent of Americans aged eighteen to twenty-nine supported Bush’s proposal. But by late March, after the bulk of the campaign by Ryan and his friends, that number had dropped to 49 percent—the biggest shift away from the Bush plan of any age group.
Thanks in part to the activities of the 30-Somethings, Democratic leaders were beginning to notice Ryan. Later in 2005, after just two full years in Congress, he was asked by Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate leader, to consider challenging Ohio’s Republican senator, Mike DeWine, the following fall. After mulling the idea, Ryan declined—he was going through a divorce, and he says he didn’t feel ready to leave his district. (Sherrod Brown ended up running, and winning, instead.)
But Ryan’s star didn’t dim. Facing only a token challenge last fall, he spent much of the campaign season stumping for other Democrats, including some outside Ohio. He also raised more than enough money to spread some around, winning further favor with the leadership. “Anyone who asked for it pretty much got some,” he says. And when Democrats prevailed on November 7, Pelosi seemed to understand that Ryan and the younger members deserved a share of the credit. She chose Ryan, Meek, and Wasserman Schultz to host the Democrats’ election-night victory party, with the result that as the speaker-to-be celebrated the new era of Democratic control on national television, Ryan’s imposing frame could be seen in the picture directly behind her.
Ryan’s growing prominence within the caucus is about more than just the leadership’s desire to reward a team player. In last fall’s midterms, Democrats increased their share of the vote among eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds by 11 percentage points, while gaining only around 6 points with voters thirty and older, according to exit polls. In other words, young people appear to be trending even more strongly Democratic than the rest of the electorate. This is especially significant, pollsters argue, because voters who stick with a party two or three times when they’re young, like consumers buying a product, tend to develop an allegiance that stays with them. Hook them early, and they’ll be with you for life. Little wonder, then, that when Democratic strategists think about where the party can make future gains, young people are near the forefront of their thinking. “This next election’s pretty important, because we did well among young people in ’04 and ’06,” says Guy Molyneux of Hart Research Associates, a leading Democratic polling firm. “So if we can get them again, the under-thirties will probably be pretty locked in.” And Ryan, who’ll still be in his thirties in 2012, figures to be near the center of that effort.
And so, as Democrats prepared to take the majority, Ryan continued to prosper. In December, Pelosi appointed him to the Steering Policy Committee, which handles committee assignments for the new Congress—Rep. Michael Capuano of Massachusetts, who was coordinating the transition to the majority and has been a mentor to Ryan, seems to have played a key role in this. From there came the biggest prize of all: a spot on the Appropriations Committee, which will give Ryan a major say in how and where Congress allocates money, and was considered an impressive coup for a third-termer.
But Ryan seems most excited by his appointment to the committee’s labor, HHS, and education subcommittee, which he describes, perhaps with some hyperbole, as “a dream come true.” There’s no doubt that he values the ability the post will give him to steer federal money to his struggling district—indeed, he was among the Democrats who argued recently for looser rules restricting congressional earmarks. “I personally think earmarks are good things as long as they’re transparent and can be justified,” he told a local Ohio paper in December.
But the new position will also let Ryan advance a longer-term vision that puts education and training at the center of the struggle to turn around his region and other similar ones across the country. Since coming to Congress, Ryan has made college affordability and quality perhaps his most consistent concern, sponsoring bills to give students tax breaks on textbooks, to expand college bookstores, and to help those who enter the military with debt. At the Akron Press Club, he argued not only that our math and science education is currently inadequate for preparing kids for a “truly global economy,” but also that music and arts education should be bolstered, not as “some big liberal tree-hugger” idea, but because “it has practical value as to our competitive advantage in the global marketplace.”
Of course, almost no one opposes efforts to improve education. But in putting it at the center of his worldview, Ryan is implicitly breaking with the more populist wing of his party. Over the last decade, the labor and domestic manufacturing movements have grown skeptical of the focus on education and training programs, arguing that these initiatives have been used by free traders as an excuse not to reexamine trade policy itself. “There’s too much emphasis on ... worker retraining and worker education,” says one leading Washington advocate of tightening trade rules. “Let’s fix the policy so we’re not losing millions of manufacturing jobs to begin with.” By contrast, Ryan’s interest in education, says Ed Gresser, a trade policy expert at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, is “an indication that yes, there is real competition, and it’s not going away.”
At the same time, Ryan’s bona fides as a friend of the workingman are unimpeachable. He knows he only got to Congress in the first place by promising to be firmer than his rival in opposing global trade deals, and he recently teamed with California Republican Duncan Hunter to introduce a bill that would threaten to impose tariffs on Chinese goods in retaliation for China’s manipulation of its currency. “He’s always stood up for American workers,” says Brett Gibson of the AFL-CIO. “He’s certainly one of our champions.”
That Ryan finds himself claimed as an ally by both sides of the trade divide is more than just clever political positioning. His approach may represent where the party, and the country, is ultimately heading on the issue. Younger people appear far more willing than their elders to acknowledge, as Ryan does, that America can’t wall itself off from the global economy. In a recent poll, 41 percent of respondents aged eighteen to thirty-four agreed that free trade deals help the United States. Among respondents fifty and over, that figure was just 18 percent. “Younger people didn’t fully live as adults in the world as it used to be,” says Lori Kletzer, a trade policy expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington think tank that has generally favored trade liberalization. “So they’re more willing to figure out ways to work in a world that has ... job insecurities and vulnerabilities.”
There’s little doubt that the current trade dialogue within the party could use some nuance. Former Clinton economic adviser Gene Sperling calls it the “divorce court debate”—with each side simply marshalling all the available evidence against the other, and says it “does not reflect the complexity of the world or the complexity of the challenges.” Pure free traders, Sperling says, “have to acknowledge that there’s been a lot more strain on the middle class from globalization recently.” Meanwhile, “trade skeptics have to recognize that China and India aren’t going away, and that a real progressive growth strategy has to also focus on a very prospective investment strategy in people”—with education at the center of it. In trying to think seriously about the massive transformation the world is in the midst of, and in searching for a response that goes beyond the slogans of both sides, Ryan appears to be leading the way.
Now that Democrats are at last in the majority, and Tim Ryan is entering his fifth year in Congress, he’s beginning to stretch his arms and think creatively about some of his party’s most controversial issues. Though he’s pro-life, Ryan recently teamed with Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, a pro-choice champion (and close Pelosi confidant) to sponsor a bill that would aim to reduce abortions by improving access to family planning and providing aid to women who proceed with unwanted pregnancies. “We’re not being judgmental. We’re not talking about Roe v. Wade. We’re not criminalizing anything,” Ryan told a group of bloggers about the bill last summer. “This is just about: How do we take a holistic approach to reduce the number? Because we are better at reducing the number of abortions than Republicans are, because we talk about prevention and we talk about the social support that we need.”
Democrats have appeared to be moving toward this type of consensus approach to the issue since 2005, when Hillary Clinton gave a high-profile speech to family-planning providers declaring the need to reduce abortions without restricting choice. On the first day of the new Congress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reidlike Ryan, an abortion opponentintroduced a similar measure. In political terms, the new direction represents a slick double play: it helps counteract the party’s reputation for being unconcerned about the high rate of abortions, while calling the bluff of many pro-life conservatives, who publicly lament the high abortion rate but, because of a traditional view of sexual morality, insist on abstinence as the only acceptable way to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
As the House’s new standard-bearer on this approachand a pro-life Catholic to bootRyan appears ideally placed to help lead the party’s effort to recast itself on abortion, and potentially to lay to rest a reliable GOP weapon in the culture wars. It’s also something that he seems to feel strongly about on the merits: “If we do it and we do it right,” he told me, “that will go down in our party’s history as one of the key things that we got done. Civil rights, Medicare, Social Security, cut the abortion rate.”Z.R.
In March, I visited Ryan in the slightly more spacious quarters that he has been assigned this year—a tangible marker of his transition from backbench upstart to established member of the governing team. But despite the congressman’s new status, his operation sometimes still conveys a sense of kids playing dress-up, not quite ready to believe that all this power and responsibility is for real. Ryan has a college-like rapport with his staffers—many have worked with him since the 2002 race—and there’s a vague feeling of dorm-room bull session about the atmosphere. Mounted on the wall of the foyer is a framed copy of Rolling Stone, with the Dave Matthews Band—every fraternity brother’s favorite act—on the cover. (“To my favorite congressman. Peace,” Dave himself has scrawled.) As I turned to leave after our interview, Ryan slapped me encouragingly on the lower back, like a football coach sending a new player into the game.
That morning, Ryan’s labor, HHS, and education subcommittee had held a hearing on the administration’s budget for student financial aid. The regular chair, Dave Obey, a veteran lawmaker from Wisconsin, could not attend, and— although there were many more senior Democrats on the subcommittee—he chose Ryan to fill in as chair in his absence.
As members and their staff filed in, Ryan sat in his usual place at the far end of the row of Democrats, until a committee staffer came over and whispered that it was time to get things started. Sheepishly, he took over the chair’s seat, as the few Republicans in attendance giggled. “I call this meeting to order because I can,” he announced, grinning and tentatively tapping the chair’s hammer on the desk in front of him as if it might explode. “Congratulations on your rapid ascent to chairman,” offered New York Republican Jim Walsh, to guffaws all around.
When it was Ryan’s turn to question the witness, a Department of Education undersecretary, he had written out his opening statement word for word, like an unsure student. Still, he took the opportunity first to rip the Bush administration for underfunding student-aid programs, and then to lay out his vision for the role of education in society. “Our nation’s output and our citizen’s standard of living are without equal, and that didn’t happen by accident,” he told the room. “It happened because the leaders of yesterday made the right kinds of investments in education, transportation, infrastructure, science, and technology.” Now he was warming to his theme: “Will we make college truly affordable for every student who has the ability and the will to work hard, study, and continue to make America the world’s economic leader, or will we choose another course?”
Soon after, Ryan adjourned the hearing, joking to his colleagues with a grin, “I hope to be back here in about thirty years.” Later, though, he told me he doubted it would take that long.
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Zachary Roth is an editor of the Washington Monthly.