Are certain political careers irredeemable? Ones that didn’t necessarily result in scandal or shame, but where policy decisions that had wide-ranging effects crumble under retrospection? If someone with such a career in public office re-emerges with a genuinely laudable goal, apparently pursued in good faith, how much trust should we have in them? I open with that annoying string of questions because Eric Holder has taken up a new cause in Democratic politics, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.
As Attorney General, Holder was the country’s top law enforcement official in the midst of the financial crisis that started in 2007, and his response left a lot to be desired, as his Department of Justice did not levy a single charge related to it. On the Ezra Klein show in January of this year, Holder explained that the cases were just too difficult to make, that their office had a standard whereby they had to show at least a 50% chance of winning to justify taking it to trial. He described weekly meetings and updates with whip-smart staff who certainly would have found something if there was anything to find that rose to that level.
Given what we know now, these explanations verge on insulting. While the DOJ was busy doing who-knows-what as the crisis unfolded around it, our media picked up on the scam fairly quickly, with documentaries- and films- and books-a-plenty uncovering all manner of malfeasance in the years that followed: banks illegally seized homes; lenders destroyed their underwriting standards so they could move the junk loans to investors; investment firms sold polished-turd financial products to an unsuspecting public and then bet against them. Documentary filmmaker Nick Verbitsky, who contributed to this body of work, commented in a PBS Frontline piece: “It’s like, what have you guys [DOJ] been doing? What have you been looking at? I mean, I went out and found these people myself […] in my spare time, basically.” Those ‘people’ being employees from financial institutions willing to talk about the crimes they witnessed. “It was work, but it wasn’t that hard.”
Holder’s disappointing actions don’t end, or rather begin, there. In 1999, shortly before leaving the public sector to work at Covington and Burling, he authored a memo presenting an interesting philosophy when it comes to enforcement of corporate crime. He argued that when we bring charges against large corporations, we have to weigh those against the “collateral consequences” (e.g. effects on the stock market) of taking such action. Holder was apparently the hipster of bad public policy, a fan of ‘too big to jail’ before it was cool. That would go a long way to explain why Citigroup executive Michael Froman included him in the list of Obama cabinet picks he emailed to John Podesta in 2008. Once Holder’s stint as AG was over in 2015, he went right back to Covington and Burling, arguably the most powerful legal defender of corporate power in America, where he is still a partner today. (Don’t bother looking for any discussion of this in Klein’s podcast.)
These days, Holder is stepping back into Democratic party politics, taking on the issue of gerrymandering (hear all about it on the Ezra Klein Show!). He has a plan to go state by state, fighting for redistricting that will ensure state legislatures accurately reflect vote tallies. It is without a doubt one of the major issues of the day, having reached the Supreme Court for the second time in two years (they struck down a case from Wisconsin last year, and are now hearing one from North Carolina). Just a few of days ago, Holder scolded the field of Democratic primary candidates for not taking the issue seriously, telling them “they need to engage more.” He’s even been going down in the trenches with the rank-and-file to boost morale. Last fall, he spoke to a group of Democratic party members at a campaign office in Georgia, famously rephrasing Michelle Obama’s motto: “When they go low, we kick ‘em.” The “they” in that statement referred to political opponents who, among other things, “want to cater to the special interests.”
Hearing Holder get passionate about redistricting and watching the video of him in the Georgia campaign office — sleeves rolled up, connecting with people, enjoying himself — I feel that he is sincere in these newfound pursuits. I’m glad that someone with his cachet is highlighting the very real problem of gerrymandering, but as far as his centrist and corporate-friendly history is concerned, it costs him nothing to do so. And if you asked those “special interests” he railed against in Georgia who looks out for them in D.C., some might include his current employer in their answer, and maybe even name Holder specifically. He is unfazed by the contradiction, but we should know better. In the Democratic primary, we currently have genuine progressive advocates who not only talk the talk at this moment, but also have careers that prove they’ve walked the walk, like Senators Warren and Sanders. With their star rising, I see no reason to make room for someone who failed us so profoundly and reaped rewards from it, with no acknowledgement or contrition for it in the aftermath. Holder’s political career may be redeemable, but he has to at least seek that redemption first.