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Van Hollen: Democrats to Once Again Run as Party of Change

House Democrats plan to revive the political ghost of former President George W. Bush in their bid to retain the majority this fall, according to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the head of the party’s re-election efforts.

Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, on Tuesday signaled that House Democrats will try to repeat their success in the last two election cycles by once again running under a change banner.

“This time we will make the case that supporting a Republican is simply turning back the clock to Bush economic policies, the same policies that got us into this mess to begin with,” the Maryland Democrat told reporters gathered at the downtown offices of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think thank. Republicans, Van Hollen added, “will, I think, put themselves clearly in the position where they represent the status quo and that the Democrats, while we have the White House and both houses of Congress, remain the party of change and reform.”

Van Hollen waved off comparisons to the midterm elections of 1994, when insurgent Republicans channeled popular dissatisfaction with Democratic control to knock off 54 Democrats and win back the House. But Van Hollen argued that then — unlike now — the GOP presented itself as a viable alternative; Democrats were caught flat-footed; and then-President Bill Clinton’s support was sagging.

While Van Hollen declined to predict how many seats Democrats will lose in November, he stated flatly they will maintain control of the chamber. “Our Republican colleagues are prematurely measuring the curtains in their new offices and prematurely popping the Champagne bottles, because we’re going to make sure this is not 1994 all over again,” he said.

Van Hollen predicted jobs and the economy would dominate the political debate over the coming months. And he said the House Democratic agenda will pivot now to focus on getting people back to work.

But he also said the party will go on offense selling the sweeping health care reform bill signed into law last month — a victory that he said has already reinvigorated a dispirited Democratic base. “We’ve seen a big increase in enthusiasm among Democratic activist voters,” he said, pointing to a “huge jump” in small contributions in the wake of the bill’s passage.

More broadly, Van Hollen said the party has already registered a softening of what had been steady, if narrow, public opposition to the measure. “It’s not that people are all of a sudden converts. But they’re much more open to the idea that this is going to be a positive change,” said Van Hollen, who also serves as Assistant to the Speaker.

Democrats plan to force Republicans to defend their votes against the bill and the subsequent calls by some in their ranks to repeal it. The DCCC chief said the party has been “monitoring very closely all the Republicans who have signed on for repeal,” with the aim of highlighting the most popular new consumer protections that would be revoked if the law is rolled back. For Republicans who back a “repeal and replace” strategy, Van Hollen said Democrats have a ready answer: “The problem with that argument is they had eight years under President Bush to do something.”

Among the practical effects of reform, Van Hollen said the Democratic win helped even the political score with Republicans, who have enjoyed a significant advantage over the majority in terms of the energy in their base. “It will be interesting to see whether they can try to keep alive — that’s clearly what they’re trying to do by this ‘repeal the bill’ effort — is to keep alive the energy that was there on the right against the bill and try to channel that somehow in these elections. And I’m not sure whether that’s going to be sustainable or not,” he said.

Van Hollen said Republicans are dealing with a “double-edged sword” with the conservative tea party movement, which he acknowledged is helping revive the Republican grass roots but also is wrenching the party further to the right. Similarly, he welcomed the political activism of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), whom he called “a very polarizing figure.”

“If you’re an independent voter, I’m not sure having Sarah Palin endorse one of the candidates is going to make you more likely to support that candidate,” he said. “In fact, it may well have the opposite effect.”

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