Republicans are banking this fall on a wave election -- dozens of GOP candidates swept into the House in a national backlash to Democratic control of Washington. But Republicans won't be the only party with a story to tell. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, head of the Democrats' House campaign committee, says Democrats will argue in every congressional district that they are still the party of change -- especially when it comes to the recession.
"We will make the case that supporting Republicans will simply turn back the clock to Bush economic policies – the same policies that got us into this mess to begin with," Van Hollen told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. "And to the extent they fight us on every reform we're proposing ... they will, I think, put themselves clearly in the position where they represent the status quo. And the Democrats, while we have the White House and both houses of Congress, remain the party of change and reform."
House Republicans all voted against a big financial regulatory reform bill aimed at improving what Van Hollen calls "Wall Street accountability." They all voted against the $787 billion stimulus package that many economists say was necessary to avert even deeper economic pain. And they all voted against the final health care overhaul that President Obama signed into law last month.
Van Hollen, a suburban Maryland policy junkie and his party's chief House strategist, said Democrats will be talking about the Wall Street vote because "that doesn't go over well with anybody, including the Tea Party." He also said voters don't like the hypocrisy demonstrated by Republicans who voted no on the stimulus package but then tried to get money for projects or take credit when money came in.
The health reform debate remains so inflamed that a man in Washington state was arrested this week and accused of threatening to kill Sen. Patty Murray over her support for it. But Van Hollen said the prevailing public reaction Democrats have encountered at home is "a big appetite for information" about what's in the health overhaul. The victory, he said, has re-energized Democrats in Congress and restored faith among Democrats in general that their political leaders could accomplish something big. E-mails and phone calls to Democrats shot up after passage, he said, as did small contributions online.
One fiscal uncertainty looming over the election is the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts in election campaigns. Within the next two weeks, Van Hollen said, he and Sen. Charles Schumer will unveil a bill they've been working on to deal with the decision. He said he doesn't expect a flood of direct corporate money in campaigns, because that would tick off half the customers of any given company. There is, however, a "very large" risk that corporations will pour money into third-party organizations with innocuous names like "Good Government Inc.," he said.
The bill will address both possibilities. It will require chief executives of corporations to appear onscreen to make clear if an ad is sponsored by a corporation, Van Hollen said, and third-party ads will have to include an onscreen list of backers to make clear which corporations are financing them.
Republicans are appealing to voters on grounds of Democratic over-reach -- too much government expansion, too much spending, too few new jobs and too little concern about the federal deficit. They are expected to gain seats as a result of the bad economy, historical trends, the activist Obama agenda, and the fact that Democrats have picked up 55 House seats since 2006. Van Hollen said some of the seats are in swing and GOP districts, making them "very difficult political territory" for Democrats. Individual members will decide what role they want Obama to play in their campaigns, Van Hollen said, noting the old joke that "we'll come in and campaign for or against you, whatever helps most."
Despite what Van Hollen called a tough year for Democrats, he said it is premature for Republicans to be measuring drapes and ordering champagne. Obama's approval rating (49 percent Tuesday in the Gallup tracking poll) is much higher than approval ratings for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as they faced their first midterms, he said. He also said Republicans were considered a real alternative governing party in 1994, when they won a House majority after decades in the wilderness. This time, he said, disaffection with Democrats isn't translating into affection for the GOP.
Polls show Republicans have an intensity advantage -- their voters are more excited and determined to vote. But Van Hollen predicted "an incredible uptick" in Democrats' enthusiasm and energy as they focus on what it would mean to hand Congress back to Republicans. He wouldn't say how many seats would be an acceptable loss, but he did go out on a limb on the big picture. "We will hold the majority," he said. "This will not be 1994."