Rep. Chris Van Hollen is looking for a fresh start.
The Maryland Democrat, who spent the past two cycles appointed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is positioning himself as both a political and policy force in the new minority atop the Budget Committee.
“It seemed to be a good marriage of policy, but understanding that that policy discussion is taking place within a political environment,” Van Hollen said, noting that he was the unanimous pick of the Caucus for the slot. “From my perspective, this is a great place to be at this particular point in history.”
Van Hollen’s counterpart will be Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), a founder of the GOP’s “Young Guns” program, who used his minority years on the committee to create a national profile on budget issues.
Van Hollen, who is widely seen as a future candidate for Speaker, put off trying to move up the elected leadership ladder last week amid a messy Caucus battle that ended with Pelosi creating a position for Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.).
Securing the ranking member slot on the Budget panel keeps him at the leadership table, which, given the dismal mid-term election results, was not guaranteed for him.
Van Hollen defended his role atop the party committee in one of the worst mid-terms for his party in generations.
Nov. 2 “was a horrible night politically speaking, and certainly there were different stages of political grief,” Van Hollen said of losing at least 61 seats. But he argued that there was little House Democrats could have done differently to change the outcome, given a tough electoral map that had scores of Democrats sitting in Republican-leaning seats, a sluggish economy and a flood of third-party money aiding the GOP.
“We can all engage in Monday morning quarterbacking as to what might have been done differently, but I think if you look at the results, it would be hard to say when you are at 9.6 percent unemployment on top of that political playing field, and $70 million of outside money, that you would have seen a dramatic difference in the outcome,” Van Hollen said.
He reiterated that sentiment to the entire Caucus on Friday, sending a detailed memo outlining his explanation for the electoral outcome and how the Caucus can move forward.
“Republicans are already making the mistake of thinking that the election was about them, rather than a referendum on the economy,” Van Hollen wrote. “We have an opportunity to make the Republican Majority the shortest in history.”
He said he takes solace in the fact that Members and candidates recognize that the campaign committee did “absolutely everything it could do from a campaign perspective to support them.”
“Because of some of the hard decisions we had to make at the DCCC, we were able to save a lot of our Members who otherwise would have gotten knocked out as part of that tsunami,” he said. His memo said that without the tough decisions made by the DCCC, they would have lost another 15 to 20 Members.
Despite the electoral losses, Van Hollen said he had no regrets for taking on the DCCC position for a second cycle. He declined to discuss his political aspirations, which may include a run for Senate.
Pelosi named Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.) on Friday to succeed Van Hollen at the helm of the DCCC.
Van Hollen said his successor has “new opportunities” to bring the Democrats back to the majority.
For now, Van Hollen said he will use his experience at the helm of the DCCC to help unite fractured House Democrats.
“After an election like this, there is going to have to be an important process of coming together,” Van Hollen said. “There [are] obviously lots of different views of how we need to move forward. I do think the caucus will come together and unite, and I hope to play a role in doing that.”
Van Hollen said he knows better than anybody from his time at the DCCC the challenges Blue Dogs faced, and he plans to work with them in his new role. “They are a very valued part of our Caucus, and their focus on fiscal discipline is an essential element of not just our message but what we have to do moving forward.”
Van Hollen also defended Pelosi, arguing that the ads against her had more bite because of the unemployment rate. And he said she understands the need to bring the Caucus together.
“I think the Speaker, soon to be the Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi … very much recognizes that it’s going to be important to open the Caucus to give everyone an opportunity to participate. I think you’ll see a very real effort to reach out to every member of the Caucus.”
Van Hollen said that the Democrats will remain the big-tent party.
“I think the challenge is going to be really more so on the other side,” he predicted. “I think John Boehner could find himself with a runaway horse.”