As Eric Holder became on Thursday the first US attorney general ever to be cited for contempt of Congress, House members faced the possibility that their investigation of a botched federal gun-trafficking sting could become a racial flashpoint.
Black leaders have rallied around Attorney General Holder, and the Congressional Black Caucus walked out Thursday when the entire House voted 255 to 67 to pass a recommendation by the Oversight Committee to hold Holder in contempt, which could lay the groundwork for a criminal investigation.
Already, Holder had brought race into the debate over the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal. The House Oversight Committee's investigation was a way for Republicans to get at the president in part because "we're both African-American," he told The New York Times last year.
And Holder has pushed the envelope on race before, for example calling America “essentially a nation of cowards” for failing to debate race openly.
Now, the moves in Congress Thursday raise the specter of charges of a racial conspiracy by white Republicans against a black administration.
Some leaders, like the Rev. Al Sharpton, suggested that Republicans had “stopped and frisked” Holder to make an “example” out of a black man. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi opined the contempt vote is retribution for Holder’s opposition to new voter ID laws that are seen as targeting minority voters in former Confederate states. MSNBC host Chris Matthews questioned whether the rancor of the contempt vote has an “ethnic” root.
The political showdown showcases a pattern that has emerged during the Obama presidency: supporters claim the opposition is racist, and critics dismiss the reaction as a knee-jerk casting of the “race card.” But its real root, say some political analysts, is more in politics than race.
“The issue of how Obama and secondarily Eric Holder have been treated, and whether race plays into it, is not crazy in the sense that a lot of the early public demonstrations had racial tinges to them, and the fact that 15 percent of whites in Mississippi voted for Obama,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “But even though the Republicans have stated that their chief goal is to see that Obama is a one-term president, what we’re seeing [with Fast and Furious] is not racial politics, it’s partisan politics.”
After a 16-month investigation, the House Oversight Committee says Holder is refusing to hand over 1,500 pages of documentation that it needs to figure out who knew about the program, and when. Holder has said making those communiqués public could put US agents at risk and cases in jeopardy, and President Obama stepped in to block the release of the documents by invoking executive privilege. A separate inspector general investigation into Fast and Furious is ongoing.
The debate in the House over holding Holder in contempt has broken down mostly along partisan lines, although 17 Democrats voted for the contempt order after the National Rifle Association warned that it would be grading lawmakers on the vote, claiming it’s part of a broader Second Amendment issue.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, said in a statement Thursday that the contempt move is "politicized and reckless," while conservatives say there are still disturbing questions about what higher-ups at the Department of Justice knew about a program that may have contributed to the deaths of hundreds of Mexicans and a US Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry.
But it’s Republican Chairman Darrell Issa’s relentless pursuit of Holder, even though he’s admitted there’s no evidence tying Holder or Mr. Obama directly to Fast and Furious, that has drawn criticism from minority leaders and activists.
“AG Holder was in essence ‘stopped & frisked’ without probable cause, and after he cooperated, he was made an example of,” Mr. Sharpton writes on the Huffington Post. “What Issa just showed us is that no matter what our stature in this world, someone can easily try to ‘put us in our place.’ What could be more outrageous?”
Some suggest that casting Republicans as modern-day Klansmen on a hunt for an errant black man will awaken an apathetic minority voting bloc, which could be crucial to the Obama reelection. But conservatives suggest that won't work.
“There’s nothing to prove anymore, and the Congressional Black Caucus may discover that their knee-jerk defense of Holder on racial grounds will not fly,” writes William Bigelow, a columnist for the Big Government website. “If they take their ball and go home, they may find that no one wants to play with someone crying racism any more.”
But Republicans, too, are aware that attacking an Obama cabinet minister with too much zeal can backfire. “It’s hard to believe Republicans relish the idea of voters seeing them imprison the country’s first African-American attorney general,” writes Alex Koppelman in The New Yorker.
A US attorney in Washington will now decide whether to file charges against Holder.
It’s partly Holder’s outspoken, sometimes in-your-face views on race that have made him an appealing target for conservatives – more so even than Obama, who has treated the inevitable matters of race more carefully and deliberately, says Professor Jillson.
“The president has always tried to deal with it not just in a responsible way, but in a way that buries the sharpest edges of race, whereas other people are much less capable verbally of handling these things in a way that leave people comfortable,” says Jillson.