Seven People Who Can Replace Eric Holder and Save Barack Obama

The betting odds on the candidates for attorney general.
Updated on

Five years and eight months after taking office, two years and three months after being held in contempt by a Republican House of Representatives, Eric Holder is announcing that he'll leave the Department of Justice.  That contempt vote was both popular and stunningly ineffective, enraging Holder and turning him into a more outspoken and implacable foe of Republican policies on voting rights and policing. (A couple of weeks after Darrell Issa blew him the raspberry, Holder referred to voter ID laws as "poll taxes." Things escalated from there.) Holder was rumored to want out after the 2012 election, or at least early in 2014. He stuck around long enough to intervene aggressively in a post-shooting Ferguson, Missouri. The lawyer best known for the Marc Rich pardon is leaving as a civil rights lightning rod.

The gist is that he's leaving. He's doing it before the lame duck session of Congress, the last few weeks before either a shrunken Senate Democratic majority or a new Republican majority takes over for Obama's final two years. This gives the president slightly more flexibility in making a nomination that only needs 51 votes in a friendly Senate to succeed. Who should he pick? 

Preet Bharara (1/2) - The US attorney for the Southern District of New York would be the first Indian American AG (one of the few big "firsts" left for the job, if that matters), and otherwise bring little change to the Obama administration. He's disappointed progressives who wanted him to bring cases against the people who caused the housing crisis, but he's been covered, in New York, as a Wall Street fraud-buster. He's half-griped, half-bragged that he's so tough on Indian American criminals that "talk show hosts in India took to calling me self-loathing." Picking him would also remove a chronic migraine for Andrew Cuomo, though the White House doesn't really need that.

Deval Patrick (2/5) - The outgoing governor of Massachusetts has been discussed as a Holder replacement since the first rumblings that the AG might quit. If Patrick dined with the White House, the "Patrick to DOJ/SCOTUS?" flare gun was pulled out and fired. Patrick's 2006 campaign was modeled on Obama's 2004 Senate win, using the same consultants, and demo-ing lines that Obama would use in his presidential bid. Patrick's personal charisma and knack for popular causes could be useful in a lame duck presidency. (UPDATE: My colleague Annie Linskey reports that Patrick was asked about this today, and called the AG gig "an enormously important job" but "not one for me right now.")

Don Verrilli (2/11) - The solicitor general would be the 79th white male Attorney General of the United States -- not terribly exciting -- but he'd live out a long, proud tradition of the federal government's chief lawyer rising to a more powerful and independent role.  (Previous SGs include John Roberts and Elena Kagan.) Plus, elevating him to DOJ would allow the White House to give the SG gig to someone who does not induce panic with his arguments.

Kamala Harris (1/23) - We're down to the picks that make no sense but sound splendid on Twitter. Harris, the attorney general of California, would be the first non-white female AG; along with New York's Eric Schneiderman, she's the AG best respected on the left for her work on financial crime and foreclosures. The problem is timing, because Harris is on the ballot in five weeks, headed for an easy re-election to a job she won only after a long, close count in 2010. Taking her out of Sacramento would put the country's most dominant Democratic Party in a tight spot and, possibly, squander a 49-year old star who's fantastically positioned to be a senator when a seat opens up. (Sen. Barbara Boxer will be 74 when her seat's up, in 2016; Sen. Dianne Feinstein will be 85 when her current term ends.)

Some Republican senator (1/100) - It's fun to speculate about, but this ain't Commerce or Transportation or the Navy, to name three jobs the Obama administration gave (or tried to give) to Republicans. There's no Republican in the Senate that's 1) simpatico with the administration's final-term agenda or 2) in a position to be replaced by someone more friendly to the White House. Better to keep Lindsey Graham around to vote for cabinet nominees in 2015.

Barack Obama (1/5000) - No, this won't happen, but it's a fun thought experiment to play with the ever-panicking Democratic consultant class. You think the president's such a burden on the party? Let him dock his pay and take a demotion: Let the era of President Joe Biden begin. The game stops being fun when you realize Biden's approval numbers are no better than Obama's.