Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen discusses partisanship, foreign policy at UMD’s Sadat Forum

By Jaqueline Zegler

On Sept. 28 the University of Maryland held the 20th annual Sadat Forum, moderated by Professor Shibley Telhami.  This year’s guest was Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) who was invited to speak on the partisan divide in America and how it has changed since the election of President Donald Trump.

Topics ranged from how Trump has deepened the divide to what the Democrats need to do in upcoming elections, to how the Trump administration’s foreign policy might be dividing the United States from the rest of the world.  

The event opened with a welcome from  the Dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences Gregory Ball and University President Wallace Loh.  Professor Telhami and Senator Van Hollen then took the stage. 

Telhami, who is the Director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, introduced the theme of the forum by citing public opinion polls conducted on campus that show how deeply divided the United States currently is on a variety of issues.  

Van Hollen commented on this saying it was all about perspective.

“You didn’t get the sense of deep gridlock. You didn’t get the sense of polarization expressed as you do today,” he said. “If you run on a no compromise campaign, and deliver on that promise, then you get gridlock.”

When asked why this divide existed in the first place, Van Hollen said that congressional redistricting played a major role.  

“Officials are picking their voters instead of voters choosing their officials,” he said.

The conversation also touched on the division within the Democratic and Republican parties. “Quietly on Capitol Hill, Republicans are not enthusiastic about Trump, but because of the polarization, they won’t say this in their home states.”  

Van Hollen also mentioned how both President Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders ran their campaigns on anti-establishment platforms.  He said that Americans’ frustrations are rooted in the lack of economic mobility of the middle class.

When asked by a representative from the British Embassy about unifying the Democratic Party, Senator Van Hollen said that there is currently more unity than meets the eye.  However, to bring back the voters who voted for Obama eight years ago but voted for Trump in this past election, the party needs to focus more on economic issues while maintaining their reputation as the “Party of Inclusion.”

Telhami asked if it is enough for candidates in upcoming elections to be “anti-Trump.” To this, Senator Van Hollen said that they will need a much stronger platform for the 2020 election, but it may do the trick for midterm elections in 2018.  He elaborated by saying that the midterm elections have always acted as referendums on the presidency. It is the earliest chance Americans have to start changing the way things are going in Washington.  

As for foreign policy, Senator Van Hollen was asked his opinion on the revised travel ban.  The original ban, he said, created more division in this country than any other issue. Not only does the ban divide the United States, he said, but it also divides us internationally.  For example, ISIS has used the ban to create strong, anti-American rhetoric. He also said that the revised ban will be harder to oppose because it contains countries that are not of Muslim majority, such as North Korea and Venezuela. However, if the courts do not overturn it, Congress could intervene by defunding the order.

Another volatile foreign policy issue is North Korea.  Van Hollen said that military action would have “catastrophic human costs” and that it is not a serious option leaving tighter sanctions to be the only choice. However, the Senator said that enforcement of the sanctions is key.

Van Hollen has proposed legislation that  would put pressure on those who continue to do business with North Korea.

“I think everybody knows that if you actually ever want to get North Korea to the negotiating table, you got to have the Chinese involved,” he said.

The ultimate goal, according to Van Hollen, is denuclearization, which would involve much negotiation.

Despite low student attendance, reactions to the forum were generally positive.

“I thought that the forum was really interesting,” freshman government and politics major Evelyn Pearcy said. “I mostly enjoyed getting an insider’s perspective on the internal and partisan issues in Congress. I’m glad that the student body had the opportunity to get to know their senator and get involved in current political discourse.”  

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