Washington Matters


GOP's Knee-Jerk Reaction to Holder Pick


Admittedly, it's way too soon to draw conclusions, but in the two weeks since the election, President-elect Obama has surprised many by doing just what he promised -- reaching out to his opponents and trying to establish coalitions for governing from the center. That's why he's talking to his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, about the secretary of state's job. That's why he sought an early meeting with his Republican opponent, John McCain, which McCain graciously granted without delay. And that's why he asked his former colleagues in the Senate to take it easy on Sen. Joe Lieberman, who could be said to represent both parties all by himself. 

So what's the early Republican response to this effort to avoid the old angry politics as usual? Judging by the reaction to Eric Holder's likely nomination as attorney general, the GOP reaction seems to be a return to politics as it used to be 10 years ago.

One of the most bitter partisan periods I ever covered was the closing years of President Clinton's second term, when Republicans' palpable hatred was repeatedly on display -- in the attempt to impeach him, in the accusation that he bombed Iraq for personal political gain, in holding up of so many of his judicial nominations and in blocking scores of other moves that they thought might give Democrats some kind of edge.

Now come ominous signs that the hatred is back -- or that it never went away. We've seen it in loud complaints about the number of former Clinton administration officials being picked by Obama. And we're seeing it in the vague threats to hold up Holder's nomination because of his role in Clinton's last minute pardon of Marc Rich, a tax-cheating fugitive who got off scott free, allegedly in exchange for contributions to the Clinton library. Holder was acting attorney general at the time and gatekeeper of the pardon list. He long ago acknowledged his mistake in not questioning the Rich decision more forcefully, saying that he just wasn't paying enough attention. But there is no evidence that Holder did anything wrong beyond being sloppy.

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The GOP seems delighted to have an issue to pounce on. The Republican National Committee is gleefully pointing to the Rich issue, distributing a press release today suggesting that the pardon raises serious questions about Holder's fitness for the job. This from the party that did more to politicize the Justice Department in eight years than anyone even thought to do in the preceding 200. (And went so overboard, in fact, that the department inspector general has found that numerous laws were broken, although there is little chance of any prosecutions.)

Make no mistake about it. We desperately need Republicans to play the role of the responsible opposition party in the coming years, especially with such a large Democratic majority in Congress. And it was the RNC, not lawmakers themselves, that blasted Holder, so it's possible cooler heads will prevail in the Senate -- especially since there is virtually no chance of derailing Holder as AG if Obama goes ahead with the pick.

But this reflexive reaction and lashing out is so dissonant with the atmosphere in Washington right now and Obama's emphasis on reconciliation that you have to wonder if Republicans have gone tone deaf. If there was one message that voters sent on Nov. 4, it was that they are tired of politics the way it's been played for what feels like forever. And if Republicans aren't capable of even acknowledging that much out of the election, then they run the risk of making themselves even more irrelevant than the election has already left them.



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