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Chris Van Hollen: The Good Soldier

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 30, 2010 AP Photo/Cliff Owen

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."

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.

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/NBC News 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.

Strategists in tough races have been skeptical of this message, and they still are. Yes, people tell pollsters they don't want undisclosed special interest money influencing elections. But that's not what worries them when they go to bed at night, and it may not be topmost among their concerns when they head to the voting booth. When polls ask people to name their worries, special-interest money doesn't come up. (That isn't to say that by 2012 this won't be an issue. In two years, if Republicans policies are unpopular Democrats will say it's because the GOP has been paying back the special interests who bought the election for them.)

In the end, it may be the key example used in the post-election recriminations, as Democrats debate whether their problem was bad communication (as various White House aides have suggested) or a bad message.

Though the president has been in a reflective mood recently, discussing the modifications he may make to his presidency after the election, Van Hollen did not indicate how congressional Democrats would change if they lose control of the House on Nov. 2. When asked how things might be different, he said he hoped Republicans might be less obstructionist.

It was a genuine hope, surely, but it wasn't quite a responsive answer. If this election is a referendum on what happened in the last two years, rather than a choice between competing visions for the next two--or even if it's more of a referendum than a choice--then there are signs that message has yet to sink in among some Democrats. Which means that just because the election won't be a surprise like Pearl Harbor doesn't mean it won't be a rout like the Alamo.

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John Dickerson is a CBS News political analyst. He is also Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. You can also follow him on Twitter here.
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