While viewing today’s dreary stagnation on Capitol Hill, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the two parties have assumed a kind of role reversal. Where the House Republicans have at times verged on youthful chaos, the Democrats have settled into a comparatively humdrum corporate hierarchy dominated by septuagenarians. Early in 2011, Republican House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy had that particular ironic development in mind when he approached Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland congressman and rising Democratic star, on the House floor and offered him some free advice on how to get ahead. “You’re never going to be in play to win the majority as long as you keep your old leadership. I’m not worried about you guys ’til the day I see one of you start a Young Guns program,” McCarthy told him, referring to the GOP’s youth recruitment drive. “Whoever does that is gonna be the next leader of your party. But someone has to hold the flag and charge the hill. And he’ll need someone behind him so, in case he gets shot, the other guy can grab the flag.”
Van Hollen smiled and said nothing—in effect, saying, Don’t worry about me—I’ll be just fine. And the last two years have in fact been career-makers for him. From the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations to early January’s fiscal cliff agreement to the latest sequestration wrangles, Van Hollen has emerged as the Democrats’ leading budgetary strategist on Capitol Hill. He understands the thinking of his friendly Republican adversary on the House Budget Committee, Chairman Paul Ryan, better than anyone, which made Van Hollen the logical choice to play Ryan during Joe Biden’s prep sessions for last year’s vice presidential debate. (“There are very few times you get to be that relentless on the V.P. and be thanked for it,” he says.) Along the way, he has become Biden’s—and by extension the White House’s—most trusted interpreter of the House’s shifting political crosscurrents. (“Biden doesn’t know the House that well,” one of the veep’s senior aides told me, adding, “Van Hollen’s a guy who’s in the middle of the most important stuff up there, so he’s helped to broaden Biden’s understanding of what’s going on.”) The Obama campaign deployed him as a surrogate whenever possible. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has awarded him leadership responsibilities that would invite hostility from his colleagues were he not so highly respected by them as well.
Van Hollen’s considerable regard in the House Democratic caucus comes at a fortuitous moment, when the party seems on the cusp of a generational shift in leadership after a decade of being commandeered by the elderly triumvirate of Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and James Clyburn. Without breaking a sweat, the 54-year-old Chris Van Hollen finds himself in position to become the next Democratic speaker of the House.
“There are different paths to power,” says U.S. Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who has known Van Hollen since both of them served as staffers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee 30 years ago. “Look at the beloved Tip O’Neill. No one would accuse him of being a master of public policy. But he was a master of people. Chris has followed the course of great figures like Sam Nunn, who knew that knowledge is a wellspring of power.”
What’s not clear is where that model will ultimately take Van Hollen—a studious policymaker, but also a shrewd politician, who isn’t likely to remain content as an inside player for long. As a House Republican leader bluntly put it: “You can tell he’s ambitious. He’s going to make a move. But because of that smile on his face, you won’t know it ’til it’s already happened.”
Van Hollen’s best work exists out of plain view. One week after the election, the Maryland congressman showed up alone at the vice president’s house for a private dinner. The two men sat in front of the fireplace alongside Champ, Biden’s German shepherd, and reminisced about the campaign—the veep noting with relish that President Obama had taken Ryan’s home city of Janesville, Wisconsin—before settling into the jittery business of how to keep the country from sliding off the fiscal cliff and into a recession.
“The main thing is,” Van Hollen told Biden that night, “we’ve got to be prepared to go over the cliff if it comes to that. Not just in terms of public posturing, but also internally. We need to figure out under what circumstances we’re willing to go over.” Van Hollen recited a list he had brought of every fiscal element that might be woven into the ever-elusive grand bargain between Obama and Speaker John Boehner. Biden said he would be meeting with the president the next morning to relay Van Hollen’s advice. The congressman recounted their talk to Pelosi, who then contacted White House officials, telling them that Van Hollen was her point man and to keep him informed, which they did on a daily basis.
The morning of the vote, on January 1, first Biden and then Van Hollen stood before the Democratic caucus to explain the deal’s components. A sizable number of Democrats weren’t thrilled with what they heard. They advocated forcing Boehner’s Republicans to put up their votes first so that the Democrats alone didn’t own the bill. Van Hollen instead counseled going right to the heart of the House GOP’s tarnished image. “Let’s keep the pressure on them—let’s not announce publicly that we’re going to vote for it,” he told Pelosi at the end of the caucus. “The Senate Republicans have already passed this overwhelmingly. So if most of Boehner’s guys vote against it … we’ll say this is proof of how extreme the House Republicans are.”
Pelosi followed Van Hollen’s advice to the letter. For his part, when it came time for the vote, the Budget Committee’s ranking member indicated his “aye”—not too early to give away the game to the Republicans, but early enough to encourage his fellow Democrats to fall in line.
Van Hollen’s swift ascent is the fruit of diplomatic instincts combined with a daredevil streak—both traits nurtured from childhood. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. was born in Karachi, Pakistan, a fact that his Republican opponent in last year’s congressional election sought to cast in an ominous light, without success. His father served as the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka; his mother, Eliza, was a South Asia specialist for the State Department. (She briefly worked at the OSS, the precursor to the CIA. Though Van Hollen says there’s no truth to the rumor that she was an undercover agent, her ongoing contributions as an intelligence analyst led CIA Director Robert Gates to award her a National Medal of Achievement in 1992.) His younger sister, Cecilia, described their lives overseas: schooling in elite international schools, vigorous dinner table discussions about world affairs, an acute exposure to both elitism and extreme poverty. From that early chapter, it’s easy to trace her older brother’s trajectory: Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, followed by employment as an arms-control specialist under moderate Republican Senator Charles Mathias and in other foreign policy positions on the Hill, before pursuit of a sensible succession of elective offices in Maryland and Washington.
But then Cecilia Van Hollen volunteered an unexpected side of Chris’s formative years. “When we lived in Sri Lanka, one of the things we did as a family was go into the wildlife preserves and jungles on vacations,” she said. “We had a rickety old Jeep, and Christopher would always want to sit up on the roof. The wildlife guides were not so keen on this idea, but he always got his way. We’d have encounters with herds of angry elephants, and he’d have to scramble down from the roof. He always wanted to push things.”
He pushed things in the political arena as well. Running for the Maryland House of Delegates in 1990 as a neophyte, he prevailed against a field of nine candidates. Four years later, he took on State Senator Patricia Sher, a mentor and popular Democratic incumbent, and showed no shyness in arguing that Sher was out of step with the needs of her constituents. He whipped her by a 50-point margin. After two highly productive four-year terms, Van Hollen set his sights on Maryland’s 8th Congressional District. His primary opponent, Mark Shriver, was a Kennedy whose uncle Ted lent campaign assistance, whose cousin Patrick happened to be the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and whose campaign strategists were David Axelrod and David Plouffe. Van Hollen mustered a startlingly vigorous grassroots effort—“It was a nearly perfect campaign,” Plouffe told me—and won, aided by a key endorsement from The Washington Post. Van Hollen immediately solicited and received Shriver’s endorsement in his general election race against beloved moderate Republican Connie Morella, then running for her ninth term. The year 2002 was a dismal one for Democrats. Among the 435 congressional races, only two challengers managed to unseat a GOP incumbent. One of them was Van Hollen, who beat Morella by four points.
The giant-killing freshman caught Minority Leader Pelosi’s eye early. “He distinguished himself quickly as being an unusually effective blend of policy and politics,” recalls a member of Pelosi’s inner circle. “And by politics, I mean the business of messaging and marketing policy objectives, and also by being unusually adept at distilling very complicated things down to the point where they’re understandable for the press, the public, and the members.” Pelosi also admired Van Hollen’s ability to espouse progressive principles in moderate tonalities. In 2006, she directed Van Hollen to assist DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel in recruiting candidates. The Marylander absorbed Emanuel’s knowledge of the national political map, if not the latter’s coarse people skills. (Though he did succeed in rankling Karl Rove during a 2007 episode of “Fox News Sunday” by frequently placing his hand on Rove’s arm—leading the GOP operative to complain about Van Hollen “touching me like this.”) He ascended to the DCCC chairmanship for the 2008 cycle and made the most of his new position—not only by gaining an additional 21 seats for the Democrats, but by using the DCCC's funds to ingratiate himself with the Congressional Black Caucus, the Blue Dogs, and various other party factions. Knowing that the 2010 cycle would be rockier than the previous two, Pelosi asked Van Hollen to continue at the DCCC and limit the damage. He agreed, and the House Democrats were subsequently shellacked. “Most of the time, when you lose like that, it ends up defining you,” the House Republican leader told me. “But he managed to find a new opportunity instead.”
Today, it’s largely forgotten that Van Hollen wasn’t even on the Budget Committee when he announced to Pelosi at the end of 2010 that he intended to run to be its ranking member. In so doing, Van Hollen leapfrogged over a dozen or so Democrats who had already accrued seniority on the panel. (The previous chairman, John Spratt, lost his reelection bid.) Given the radical fiscal austerity measures that Boehner’s new Republican majority intended to promulgate, the post sought by Van Hollen amounted to prime real estate. But, says a Democratic insider who is close to Van Hollen: “I think people on the Budget Committee realized what was waiting on the other side, and that was Paul Ryan. And nobody else really wanted to go toe to toe with him. If you’re not prepared, he will eat your lunch.” Van Hollen personally lobbied everyone in his caucus. In the end, he ran unopposed.
Shortly after the 2012 election, NBC congressional reporter Luke Russert asked Pelosi whether her decision to remain minority leader “prohibits the party from having a younger leadership and hurts the party in the long term.” At the time, Pelosi happened to be surrounded by her female Democratic colleagues, who lustily booed Russert. Pelosi herself termed the question “offensive” and strongly implied that the reporter was sexist, even after he clarified his question by pointing out that not just Pelosi, but also Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn are all old enough to be drawing Social Security.
Van Hollen faltered just a bit when I asked him if he thought Russert’s question was out of line. “Look, I think it was—I think that, I don’t think age is the, and I’m serious, I don’t think age is the primary consideration here,” he managed in reply. “I really think it’s whether people still have the desire and energy to get the job done. And so I can understand why Pelosi responded as she did. She clearly still has the energy to get the job done.”
The question for Pelosi is not what to do with her energy, but rather with Van Hollen’s. The Marylander acknowledges that he gave thought to running for the Senate in 2006 when Paul Sarbanes retired, before concluding that it wasn’t worth the risk of losing both the election and his congressional seat. And he was poised to run for Senator Barbara Mikulski’s seat had she vacated it in 2010, but Mikulski stayed put. A few Van Hollen fans in the Obama White House recently floated his name for a top administration post—perhaps director of the Office of Management and Budget—but ultimately nothing was offered. “Look, time is on Van Hollen’s side,” says a senior Obama official. “Something’s going to open up. Pelosi’s not going to be there forever. [Maryland Governor Martin] O’Malley’s going to run for president. Mikulski’s in her late seventies. Chris has got all sorts of options.”
When I asked Van Hollen to help me figure out his ambition, he awarded me a bashful grin and said: “Look, I think I have something to contribute to the national debate on these issues. How I do that is kind of a work in progress. I think in politics you have to devote yourself to the moment, but also be prepared to take advantage of opportunities that may come up.”
Van Hollen will not come right out and say that, if and when the Democrats return to power in the House, he’ll have the inside track to become speaker. But others will. “By the end of this Congress, all three Democratic leaders will be in their mid-seventies,” says the Pelosi ally. “Particularly in a caucus like ours, where the strength is coming from youth and minorities and a new generation of voters, there’s going to be some appetite for a new, improved model. That cohort includes Van Hollen, Xavier Becerra, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Steve Israel. But none of those other candidates has demonstrated at this point the facility for operating at the highest level of the policy debate, as well as the political skills—like fund-raising and accruing loyalty—that you need to be at the level of speaker. Now, does that mean he’s a lock? No.”
It means, instead, that the boy who once sat on the roof of a Jeep to be closer to the elephants would have to venture into the wild again. “If there are Democrats who want to be in leadership—and this goes for Chris, too—then they’ve gotta run,” the Van Hollen associate told me. “I mean, Pelosi doesn’t owe it to anyone to step down. Same thing for Hoyer and Clyburn. So grow some balls and run against them.”
Robert Draper is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a correspondent for GQ. His most recent book is Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives.