Maryland's Chris Van Hollen works to keep the House in Democrats' hands

He's also in search of something he has lost: the adoration of the American people.
By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Difficult is a word Chris Van Hollen says a lot these days.

The mild-mannered Maryland congressman has graying hair, a diplomatic pedigree and the worst job in Washington. Tasked with protecting the Democratic House majority in the Autumn of Democratic Discontent, he talks about the "difficult political environment resulting from the economy" and lamented "some statements made by economic advisers of the White House that created a sort of benchmark that was -- difficult to achieve." He winces as he talks about how it is "very difficult, it's incredibly difficult" to decide who among his endangered congressional brethren receives financial lifelines and who does not. He notes how his success at expanding the majority in 2008 had the unfortunate consequence of a more "difficult" map this time around.

"I can't say I didn't know what I was getting into," Van Hollen, 51, said as he reclined in the back of a black Lincoln as it inched toward a fundraiser with President Obama on Columbus Day. But he admitted that it was "much more difficult" than he'd imagined.

Van Hollen has the look of a burdened man as he roams the country. In the balance are his own political prospects, the careers of his colleagues -- especially the future of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) -- and, most critically, the president's agenda.

If that sounds like it's too much for one man to bear, then Van Hollen agrees: He has sought help from the White House for more than a year. Along with the congressional leadership, Van Hollen has pleaded with the president to lose the Congress-is-broken mantra -- brutal for Democratic incumbents -- and to give his candidates something to work with by sharply contrasting the offerings of Democrats and Republicans.

"We thought it was important to emphasize the contrasts, and they agreed with that," Van Hollen said, referring to a White House meeting with congressional leaders and Obama as recently as last month. "But we wanted the focus to be more of a laser beam."

Van Hollen, the polite and subtle scion of diplomats, can only imply what his allies put bluntly: The president waited too long to make the case for Democrats.

"The president has done it as good as it can be done," James E. Clyburn (S.C.), the House majority whip, said of Obama's performance on the stump. "The question is: Could he have done it sooner?"

In the final weeks leading up to Election Day, Obama has found his voice. He has recorded robo-call messages for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to motivate African American voters and has often closed his argument with an analogy that Van Hollen first used in January. Republicans have driven the economy into a ditch, the line goes, and want the keys back.

On Columbus Day, Van Hollen sat behind Obama like a watchful piano instructor as the president repeated the analogy to a crowd of donors at the palatial waterfront home of basketball player Alonzo Mourning in Coral Gables, Fla.

"Chris Van Hollen, he's the only guy who puts in more miles than me," Obama said, calling the congressman's job "one of the more difficult posts in politics."

Tradition of diplomacy

Rahm Emanuel, the brash Chicagoan who preceded Van Hollen as DCCC chairman, knew how to attack. But to defend the majority that Emanuel won, Democrats have turned -- twice -- to Van Hollen, reliable for his soothing demeanor, camera-friendly countenance and strategic outlook. Navigating dire situations is a Van Hollen family tradition. His father served as an ambassador to Sri Lanka and his mother was a polyglot intelligence analyst known for predicting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the dangers of courting Islamic extremists.

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