Chris Van Hollen's demeanor, as a reporter pointed out to him in a moment of familiarity during a press conference several weeks ago, is that of a Washington gentleman. He is civil and restrained. The language of legislators, "my dear friend from across the aisle," "the gentleman from Texas," seem in perfect context floating off his tongue.
And now, as the structure of the Democratic House leadership has been tossed up in the air, his future as a creature of Democratic Washington is largely uncertain.
Van Hollen, the four-term congressman representing Rockville, Maryland, captained the party's House campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, during the most difficult election season for Democrats in the modern era. He is not, as of yet, taking a tremendous amount of blame for Tuesday's results, as the stark fact of all the losses, and the GOP's new majority that Van Hollen had sworn would never realize, are being seen not as a failure of party apparatus but as an inescapable current that the party was helpless to avoid, no matter who was in charge of avoiding it.
It's an odd thing to say a few days after such epic defeats under his watch, but Van Hollen probably has a bright future in Congress, despite the most recent crushing blow.
Today, he stepped down as chairman of the DCCC, leaving his future open.
"Congressman Van Hollen is focused on providing support and resources to our candidates in still undecided races. As he has done for the last four years, Van Hollen is going to fight to the very end for every single House Democrat," Thornell said Friday afternoon, with several House races still yet to be called.
"Over the last couple of days he has been getting lots of inquiries about his future from his colleagues who are encouraging him to stay in the Democratic leadership and appreciate his hard work under historically difficult political circumstances."
It may be difficult for Van Hollen to climb any higher on the Democratic ladder, as the competition shapes up for the top posts in Democratic leadership.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she will run for minority leader, but the rest of the picture is less clear.
With Democrats headed for the minority, they'll have one fewer spot in party leadership (the job of Speaker disappears), and a game of musical chairs unfolded on Friday. A battle for the job of Democratic Whip looms between James Clyburn, the current whip from South Carolina who says he will run again, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the moderate Maryland congressman who beat out Pelosi's chosen candidate, the late Rep. John Murtha, for majority leader in 2007. With Pelosi running for minority leader, Hoyer is gunning for the number-two spot, while the Congressional Black Caucus will support Clyburn.
Caucus chairman John Larson is running to keep his job, and Rep. Xavier Becerra, the 52-year-old caucus vice-chairman from Los Angeles, has signaled that he will run for that post again.
As these members look to secure their positions or move up the ladder, there may not be a spot for Van Hollen at the end. It's crowded at the top.
Complicating Van Hollen's outlook is this fact: With ballots still being counted in a handful of races across the country, he can't very well step out of his role as DCCC chairman when there are Democrats out there still fighting, and for whom Van Hollen is also expected to fight. He can't project an image of being done with the 2010 midterms--which he would if he were to publicly ask Democrats to support him in a leadership bid--when the 2010 midterms are still going on.
Everything about Van Hollen's recent career trajectory has suggested a spot in Democratic leadership awaits him. As the lame duck session unfolds and these members secure support from fellow Democrats, the picture will become clearer.
Where Van Hollen fits into this picture is anyone's guess.