Van Hollen: Democrats Are On Offense

Congressman Van Hollen speaks during a 50 year rededication ceremony for Bethesda Fire Department Station #20.
Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who are shaping American politics. This week, CBS News' Brian Goldsmith talked with Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the fundraising and political arm of House Democrats. He discussed last Tuesday's off-year elections and the Democrats' prospects in next year's elections. In this week's elections, your party got some good news. You took back the governorship in Kentucky and you won control of the Virginia State Senate. But another way of looking at it, perhaps, is that voters rejected a lot of unpopular incumbents. And with a 27 percent Congressional approval rating, does that give you pause at all?

Chris Van Hollen: We see the recent elections as a continuation of the political momentum we had in the midterm Congressional elections. Because people continue to vote and support the Democrats' message of change. We saw that in Virginia. We saw it in Kentucky.

We saw it in individual races. For example, the mayor's race in Canton, Ohio, where we have a very contested congressional seat, that mayor's seat switched from Republican to Democrat. So this is a pro-Democratic trend. If you look at what the Democrats promised a year ago, some of those promises have been passed and a number have been signed into law -- from the 9/11 Commission recommendations to ethics reform to increases in veteran and student aid, as well as a minimum wage increase. Yet as a whole, Congress is unpopular. Do you think that's a communications failure on your part?

Chris Van Hollen: No, I don't think it's a failure. As you point out, we followed through on the promises we made on domestic policy in the last election. I think what it reflects is a frustration with the fact that we haven't been able to change direction in a significant way in Iraq.

And I should hasten to add that we share that frustration. We very much hope that the Republicans would get the message from the last election that the Iraq policy has been a failed policy. And it's time to redeploy our forces in a safe and responsible manner, in accordance with the recommendations of the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton commission report.

That's the proposal we sent to the president last summer. He vetoed that. On children's health, we passed a bipartisan bill in the Congress. We sent it to the president's desk. He vetoed that. Are we frustrated with the fact that he is standing in the way of change on those big issues? Yes.

But the American people clearly understand that it is President Bush and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill who continue to stand in the way of change. But do they really understand that? Is there a chance that voters are, in effect, putting a pox on both branches of government?

Chris Van Hollen: Every poll since the election has shown that the American people continue to have much greater confidence in Democratic leadership in Congress than in Republican leadership. And the same holds true with respect to specific issues of great concern to the American people.

Like health care. Like energy policy. Like education. Like the economy. And like the conduct of the war in Iraq. So I think the American people do understand who is standing in the way of change. They see clearly that the president has vetoed important legislation on Iraq, on children's health, on stem cell research to try to provide cures and treatments for diseases that plague millions of American families.

And so, I really think that the Republicans have failed to listen to the clear message in the last election. And we have followed through on the commitments that we made. And in some of those areas, the president has blocked us. But the voters are on our side. What about the criticism coming from a lot of Democratic activists that the Congress hasn't sufficiently focused on getting out of Iraq. And that you're not just sending the president another bill every time he vetoes one, and keeping relentless attention on that issue?

Chris Van Hollen: Well, we have sent the president a bill over the summer that would have dramatically changed direction in Iraq. He vetoed it. In the House, we've also passed a number of other measures that would have changed direction in Iraq. And in the Senate, they've made every effort to do so.

They in the Senate, of course, have been blocked because the Republicans have used the filibuster to prevent some of those bills from getting to the president's desk. But this fight is not over. It will go on.

In the next weeks, we will see a continuation of that fight. The president has asked for 200 billion dollars this year for the war in Iraq--money that is being put on our national credit card at the same time that he says that we can't afford to provide ten million American children with health care coverage. The cost of the coverage for children's health represents about two months of the cost of the war in Iraq. So I think people clearly see that the president has misplaced priorities. And he's out of touch. On Iraq, the battle will continue. Congressman, most of your 2006 gains came in districts that the president won in 2000 or 2004 or both. What are your chances of retaining those seats in a presidential year in which the entire environment is more partisan--and you'd have to get voters to split their tickets to support the Republican presidential nominee as well as their Democratic incumbent in Congress?

Chris Van Hollen: I think they're good because our members of Congress have worked very hard to cement their relationship with the voters. We have many veteran members who have been battle tested in earlier presidential elections.

I think it's important to point out that about 30 of the 60 Democrats who represent congressional district that Bush carried in the last election have already been through that particular battle. People like Chet Edwards of Texas, Dennis Moore of Kansas, Jim Matheson of Utah.

And they are examples to others of how you can be strong, independent representatives for the people in your district and make sure that you survive in a presidential election year, even when the voters in your district might support the Republican nominee for president.