By Montgomery County standards, it qualified as a political earthquake: the respected Takoma Park/Silver Spring “Progressive Neighbors”  PAC steering committee did not endorse Chris Van Hollen in his bid for re-election to Maryland’s 8th Congressional District seat in the House of Representatives. As their election issues flier  — to be distributed by volunteers before and on Election Day — states,
Progressive Neighbors is split between endorsing the incumbent Chris Van Hollen and Green Party challenger Gordon Clark. We appreciate many of the stands Van Hollen has taken but have been disappointed by his lack of progressive leadership on issues that Clark is championing such as ending the War in Iraq and single payer, universal health care.
The organization’s web site front page adds, “The positions of both the incumbent Chris Van Hollen and Green Party challenger Gordon Clark were considered by the steering committee, and the committee came to a split decision.”
I spoke with Progressive Neighbors steering committee member and contact person Wally Malakoff, who said he agreed with the position the group took: “Van Hollen has taken good positions, but could be more aggressive” in pushing them, while Clark is a “good, articulate spokesman” for progressive positions. He said that the steering committee solicited member opinions via email and also considered those responses — roughly evenly divided — in coming to its decision.
The two candidates submitted letters to the Progressive Neighbors steering committee — first one by Van Hollen  requesting endorsement, and then a response by Clark — both of which are now posted on the Progressive Neighbors web site.* Given that Van Hollen had to miss the only debate he was willing to schedule with Clark, the letters are perforce the only debate the voters of the 8th Congressional District will get to judge.
There are a lot of specific points made by both candidates in their letters. Instead of dwelling on these specifics, I’ll try in the following to get across the themes of both candidate’s positions accurately. In case it needs restating, I should make it (even more) crystal-clear that I support Clark.
A couple of things jump out for me from the Van Hollen letter. First, and most concretely, Representative Van Hollen now professes to support single payer universal health care: “I will continue to fight for universal health care and support a single payer approach.” This is welcome news; as recently as last week , the best Van Hollen could apparently tell the Washington Post’s Ann Marimow was that he “supports universal coverage but is curious about how a single-payer system would be funded.”
Second, Mr. Van Hollen can’t seem to decide whether to be stung by or dismissive of many of Clark’s charges — both in an issues comparison flier  and in the recent debate  that Van Hollen could not attend. This is betrayed both in the tone of Van Hollen’s response (“galling,” “outrageous,” “totally false,” “absurd,” etcetera) and in the substance of his remarks, many of which are variations on the theme that 15 percent of a loaf is better than none:
I will always support legislation to accomplish 100% of a goal. But I also understand that when it is politically impossible to achieve 100% of a goal it is usually important to make progress toward a goal rather than accomplish nothing.
By contrast, when speaking of his work in Congress, Van Hollen frequently invokes the “what can I do” argument — “Bush vetoed it,” “it failed in the Senate,” “politically impossible.” The overall impression isn’t flattering: relative passivity in the face of major political opposition — aggrieved aggressiveness when the challenge seems less formidable.
Clark’s reply may be best summed up by a couple of items on the last page. First:
Throughout his letter, Mr. Van Hollen blames the opposition of President Bush and the Republicans as the reason he could not pass better legislation. And yet in many cases he is not even on the public record as supporting the more progressive policies, let alone introducing them into legislation or actively fighting for them. […] How does it benefit progressive policy change to have members of Congress, like Mr. Van Hollen, who blame the opposition for their unwillingness to even speak about the larger goals publicly, let alone co-sponsor or introduce appropriate legislation and then fight for it?
This critique is at the heart of many of Clark’s rebuttals to claims that he’s misrepresenting Van Hollen’s position. To take one example, Clark writes:
I have never said that Mr. Van Hollen is “against” a government program for gas-free electric cars. I have said – and continue to say – that he does not support one, at least not one of any real significance.
It’s a matter of leadership. Clark boils it down to a quote by the late Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN):
“If you don’t fight hard enough for the things you believe in,” Sen. Wellstone said, “at some point you have to realize you don’t really believe in them.”
Maybe so. It seems to me that what Van Hollen is fighting hard for, as DCCC chair, is simply — and merely — an expanded Democratic Party.
If so, the question is: is that enough? I’m inclined to say “no.” While I appreciate, say, Van Hollen’s vote against the FISA Amendment Act, he was in a position to do so much more than that: to talk Hoyer and Pelosi out of letting that law even come to a vote, and to publicly lead the charge against it. He did not. And it’s hard to think of anything that Van Hollen has really gone to the mat for — either with the Republicans or with the leadership of his own party.
Again, you should really go have a look at the two letters yourself, if you’re a voter in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District. Despite being late — and perhaps because it was done in writing — this debate wound up being quite informative after all.
* Van Hollen asked for the letter to be shared; I suggested/supported the idea that it be posted on the web site along with Clark’s response. I’ve also saved the letters to my Google Docs site here (Van Hollen ) and here (Clark ). The major segments of each letter follow:
Van Hollen — Iraq, health care, FISA, bailout, energy policy, Gore challenge, electric cars, green jobs, corn based ethanol, off-shore drilling; Clark — Iraq, Afghanistan/Pakistan, Iran, health care, bailout, foreclosures, energy/climate change, electric cars, off-shore drilling, corn ethanol, green jobs, Gore challenge, corporate PAC donations, support for conservative Democrats, larger goals.