Statesman of Ten Years Ago

Chris Van Hollen


Central Question: Just how depressing were U.S. politics in 2003?
Birthplace: Karachi, Pakistan; Mother’s professions: CIA official, State Department analyst for South Asia; Father’s professions: Foreign Service officer, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, ambassador to Sri Lanka; Also a member of: Dutch Congressional Caucus, Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus; Margin of victory, 2002 primary: 43 percent (in a three-way race); Margin of victory, 2002 general election: 52 percent; Margin of victory, 2012: 62.5 percent; Representative statement: “Our Republican colleagues refuse to close any of these tax loopholes for the purpose of debt reduction which means—it’s simple math—that means they whack everyone and everything else harder … What we’re going to propose is a balanced plan that actually addresses the whole ten-year sequester.”

If you began following U.S. politics during or just before Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, you may not know how teeth-grindingly disappointing, how forehead-slappingly futile, campaigns and elections seemed to progressive observers in early 2003. The Iraq War looked unstoppable but hadn’t technically started; the boy king G. W. Bush was riding the slow-cresting wave of his post-9/11 popularity; wreck-the-government types had taken charge of at least one and arguably all three branches of government; and the man who had as good a claim as any to be an elected leader for the left, Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, died in a plane crash ten days before the election, leaving his ballot replacement, the venerable Walter Mondale, to get beaten by the uniquely weaselly Norm Coleman. These results flipped control of the Senate, which had until then been the last apparent hurdle to a Washington where Dick Cheney’s word was law.

When the 108th Congress assembled in 2003, just two new Democrats had defeated Republican incumbents. (Both are still there.) One was Long Island’s Tim Bishop, whose race was so close it was called only near Thanksgiving. The other was Chris Van Hollen, a former Maryland state legislator whose win was a radiant spot on a grim, gray night. Van Hollen upset Kennedy relative Mark Shriver to win the primary, in part because Van Hollen was able to show that he knew, and cared, about fine points of public policy. Montgomery County, Maryland, the bulk of Van Hollen’s Eighth District, holds government workers, lawyers, and plenty of scientists, all of whom tend to reward attention to detail. Those voters were no fans of W., but they were used to supporting Connie Morella, one of the last 1970s-era “liberal republicans.” Van Hollen defeated her almost without attacking her, insisting only that her presence enabled a GOP that had moved far to her right.

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—Stephen Burt

Stephen Burt is a Contributing Reviewer of the Believer.

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