That Attorney General Eric Holder was resigning was really no surprise to the perennial Washington watchers who have nothing better to do than track the lives of the politically famous. Sources were chattering quietly about it late last year, and the New Yorker’s eager legal eagle, Jeffrey Toobin, got something of a scoop on it in an interview with the man he described as a cautious “bureaucrat.”
Then along came Ferguson, which gained Holder plaudits for his proactive response but kept him from making a quiet and nicely arranged summer exit. Had he departed his own way while Congress was on that five-week summer break, dust could have settled and the news cycles could have moved on. Instead, the first black attorney general got tasked by an overly cautious (and also vacationing) President Barack Obama to handle it.
Folks on the right are, for sure, salivating over the moment because right now, for them, Holder is the most ideologically and personally despised figure in politics. But black folks, naturally, are in a state of shock and mourning at the impending departure of the first black attorney general, perhaps because it’s a preview of the day President Obama hands over his keys to the White House.
Some charge that the timing is off: Holder had so much unfinished work, from voting rights to Ferguson, from fining more big banks to just happily being a pain in Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) ass. But here are three reasons it probably had to happen now:
He’s not trying to break service records. While always composed in public pressers, Holder was said to be quietly counting down the days, like that classic old Chris Rock bit about watching the clock at the office. To say Holder was tired of Beltway-insider bollocks is an understatement—pressure was on. He was already the fourth-longest-serving attorney general in American history, and he wasn’t feeling the prospect of closing in on the third, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Attorney General Homer Cummings.
He’s the lightning rod Democrats don’t want. If Republican legislators could routinely burn Holder in effigy, they would—being that his shrewd management of the Justice Department has had him locking horns with them so many times that calls for his impeachment are both a bill and a routine Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) talking point.
There are a few strategic advantages to leaving now rather than later, especially since the Senate is officially off session until after midterms. Foremost: If Holder had resigned in 2015, there’s the off chance that Republicans would have grabbed the Senate and would call the shots on confirming his replacement. With the attorney general headed out now, the White House avoids a bruising battle to install Holder’s replacement that would fire up the right into a voting frenzy—one less thing for already nervous Democrats to worry about, with tight decisive elections right around the corner.
And bouncing now means that the widely white Republican electorate will mostly forget about him by the time 2016 rolls around. Now they’ve only got one brother to bash, not two.
The big banks hate him—and cable and the telecoms aren’t too far behind. Holder’s Justice Department has been dropping historic and eye-popping multibillion-dollar fines on the banking sector in a bid to make us all feel better in the postrecession hangover. Bank of America just paid $17 billion. BNP Paribas handed over $10 billion in May. Holder was on a hot streak. But Wall Street elites see it as a sophisticated shakedown of their hard-earned cheese.
And Holder didn’t have many fans in the communications sector after already holding up major cable mergers like Comcast and Time Warner and putting the brakes on a proposed AT&T-and-T-Mobile merger in 2011. Thus, it was only a matter of time (and some behind-the-scenes, hard-knuckle lobbying) before Washington would find a way to put the brakes on Holder’s regime.
It’s no accident that former big-telecom lawyer and current Solicitor General Donald Verrilli is on the short list as a replacement. Dreamers, however, hope the president will take a few more steps into history by picking California Attorney General Kamala Harris to succeed Holder: “First black female attorney general of the United States” has a nice ring to it.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.