The Slatest

Mulling a White House Bid, Eric Holder May Be Overestimating the Value of Obama Nostalgia

President Barack Obama embraces then-Attorney General Eric Holder at the White House.
An artist’s rendering of Eric Holder’s 2020 campaign pitch.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

And away we go:

Ryan’s anonymous sources, it’s worth noting, are exclaiming the same thing that Holder himself has been saying for months, which gives her report plenty of legitimacy while also deflating her BREAKING NEWS frame.

“I’m going to decide by the beginning of next year and see if there is going to be another chapter in my public service career,” Holder told Viceland’s Desus & Mero this spring. Around the same time, he was laying out the pros and cons of his candidacy in an interview with the New York Times. “If I were gonna do it, I would do it because I think—I would have concluded that I could maybe unify the country,” he said in March. He repeated himself on national TV the following month. “Yes, I’m thinking about it,” he told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes.

Given how wide open the 2020 field looks, though, a potential Holder announcement in early 2019 is worth paying attention to. At a time when many Democrats are desperate for Barack and Michelle Obama to re-enter the fray, Holder—widely considered one of the former first couple’s closest friends—could be the closest the party gets to the real thing.

Holder spent five-plus years as Obama’s attorney general—the nation’s first black AG, serving under its first black president. During that time, Holder talked openly about race in a way that Obama could not, often angering others in the White House but by most accounts not the man in the Oval Office. Most famously, during a Black History Month event only a month into Obama’s first term, Holder offered harsh words for anyone hoping that his boss’s election signaled the start of a postracial America. “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” Holder declared.

In normal times, that kind of frank talk about race would resonate with many on the left, but it is likely to sound even more urgent with Donald Trump in the White House. Toss in Holder’s work on criminal justice reform, voting rights, and civil rights, and it’s easy to see the outlines of a credible Democratic campaign.

As a career prosecutor who has never run for political office, though, Holder could struggle to define himself before his critics do. His role as Obama’s real-life Anger Translator wasn’t enough to make him a household name during his time in office: When he stepped down in 2014, a majority of Americans didn’t know enough about him to register an opinion. If Obama were to endorse him next year, all that would change. But far more likely, Obama will stay on the sidelines for most if not all of the 2020 nominating contest, leaving Holder to drum up nostalgia for the Obama administration by himself (or worse for him, to compete with Joe Biden at doing the same).

Given how conservatives felt about Obama, it’s no surprise they seem to hate Holder. In a low point in his conflict with the right, House Republicans held him in contempt of Congress during a dispute over their investigation into the Fast and Furious gunrunning investigation, and they could barely contain their excitement when he ultimately left the White House. The GOP’s disdain for him would likely help, not hurt, Holder with the Democratic base, but it would also make it far more difficult for him to run as the man to unify the country, as he has suggested he would.

His Obama cred, too, would have its limits with the left, given where the party has moved in the past two years. Holder would have to answer for the Obama administration’s failure to close Guantánamo Bay and to prosecute big banks and other bad actors in the wake of the 2007 financial crisis. He’d also face heavy fire for his post-AG life. He’s returned to his old white-shoe corporate law firm, Covington & Burling, a favorite of those same Wall Street companies he chose not to prosecute when he had the chance. And as Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley points out, the firm is also currently defending the NFL against claims by Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid that they have been illegally blackballed from the league by owners acting under political pressure from Trump.

Holder has shown a tendency to play things safe politically. He has called the progressive push to eliminate the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency a “gift to Republicans” and is urging Democrats not to talk about impeachment on the midterm trail. All of that would make him an awkward hero of the grassroots-left or the Trump resistance. But if Holder gets into the race early, he might get the stage to himself. The question then would be whether Democratic primary voters like what they see.