Chris Van Hollen does his valiant best at making the case for the Democrats.

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Oct. 21 2010 5:32 PM

The Good Soldier

Chris Van Hollen does his valiant best at making the case for the Democrats.

Chris Van Hollen. Click image to expand.
Congressman Chris Van Hollen.

One of the reasons Democrats say 2010 won't be like 1994 is that, this year, they saw the attack coming and planned for it. "I have said from day one this is going to be a very challenging cycle for Democrats," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who is chairman of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Later: "This is going to be a tough election." Then: "It's a tough cycle." And again: "It's a cycle that puts all of us to the test."

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John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Speaking at a breakfast with reporters sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, Van Hollen was stating the obvious. At this stage in the campaign, however, even small admissions can be hard to come by. It is still possible to find Democratic leaders trying so hard to find a silver lining that they sound like they've got their head in the clouds. On Charlie Rose Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, "Let me tell you right here and now that I would rather be in our position right now than theirs." What she meant is that Republicans have to win maybe more than 40 seats to take control of the House, whereas Democrats only have to lose fewer than 39 to retain control. This is a novel view of casualties.

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As candid as Van Hollen was, there are two things he must say if he wants to have a future in politics: He must say that Democrats will keep control of Congress, and he must say that Nancy Pelosi will remain speaker if they do. It's like being in the security line at the airport: If you even hint or joke that something might go wrong, the consequences are severe.

So, for example, Van Hollen could be frank enough to reveal that a lot of his fellow Democrats did not initially take this election seriously. There were "a few [Democratic] members who we approached many, many, many months ago to get their act together who did not take that advice," he said. "But he was not so forthright as to actually name any of these people.

Van Hollen opened the session by delivering a dense, calorie-rich Powerbar of Democratic talking points. He hit on the legislation Congress has passed—holding Wall Street and insurance companies accountable. He mentioned the middle class, workers, special interests, secret money, Joe Barton, extremism, and outsourcing (for, for, against, against, against, against and against, respectively). He emphasized that this election is a choice—not a referendum!—and that the choice is between going forward and going backwards. It was admirably complete. But it was also long. Especially in bad times, the party in power has it harder: It has to justify what it's already done, whereas the party out of power can claim what it would have done. (Republicans can probably boil their pitch down to a word: stop).

Van Hollen's central message was that, in the last two years, special interests have seen their power diminish and are fighting back by donating a flood of secret money to GOP candidates. But it may be that Democrats are delivering this message more out of necessity than by choice. They've tried to turn House Minority Leader John Boehner into a boogeyman and it hasn't really worked. They can't really tout passage of health care reform because voters have mixed views.

When they rail against special interests, however, it's popular. According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBCNews poll, 74 percent of those polled say it's a concern that outside groups have their own agenda and care only about electing or defeating candidates based on their own issues. And 71 percent say it's a concern that the candidates who are helped by these groups could be beholden to their interests. This argument also suggests to Democrats that their legislation has been effective in pinning back special interests even if people don't feel the legislation has changed their lives. Special interests wouldn't be spending so much money, the theory goes, if they weren't nervous.

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