Holder Courts Controversy to Cloud Contempt Case

“Our nation’s struggle to overcome injustice and eliminate disparities remains far from over.”

-- Attorney General Eric Holder speaking to the National Council of La Raza (The Race), a liberal Hispanic activist group.  

It might seem like a good time for Attorney General Eric Holder to lay low, having just become the first cabinet member in history to be held in contempt of Congress.

But Holder is instead out on the campaign trail this week for President Obama, touting his accomplishments to key groups on the left and warning of institutional racism and new threats to black and Hispanic rights.

And today, Holder will be taking in Texas, ground zero for the attorney general’s effort to block states from requiring voters to show identification.

Not exactly low profile.

The president, who is skipping the national conferences of the most important black and Hispanic groups in the Democratic coalition, the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza (The Race), is counting on Holder to keep liberals and minority groups fired up and engaged while Obama seeks to soothe more moderate Democrats and the white, swing-state voters who have abandoned him.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that Republicans have walked into a trap with their crusade against the attorney general.

Here’s the thinking: By making the first black attorney general also the first cabinet member ever to be held in contempt of Congress, Republicans will look like a bunch of racist Torquemadas.

But two weeks later, it is Holder and Obama who seem to be suffering for the showdown, not the GOP.

Democrats explicitly accused Republicans of racist aims and trumping up contempt charges against Holder over his refusal to hand over documents pertaining to a botched gunrunning sting linked to the murder of a Border Patrol agent.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi alleged that House Republicans only brought the contempt charge against Holder because he was trying to stop Republicans at the state level from intentionally suppressing minority voters. Even in a political climate as rotten as ours, the accusation of a corrupt, racist conspiracy against one’s congressional colleagues was notable.

But her accusation, reinforced by Holder in his response to the contempt finding, is rooted in a Democratic effort to build on the conventional wisdom and turn the quest by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, into a defeat for the GOP.

Holder’s Justice Department has taken action against no fewer than 26 states, mostly over voter rules and efforts to curb illegal immigration. The attorney general has warned that laws requiring voters to show identification threaten a return to “Jim Crow,” the laws that required segregation and unequal treatment of blacks in the post-Reconstruction South.

In his speech to the NAACP today, expect Holder to go farther. He will be in Texas, a state locked in a bitter legal dispute with Holder over its voter ID law, and he will be speaking before the most powerful racial special-interest group on the left.

The apparent hope is that by embracing his role as a crusader against racism, Holder can blur the lines on his current confrontation with Congress. The more Holder denounces racism in Republican states and the more strife he courts the blurrier the contempt controversy may become. Repeated often enough, Democrats believe that they can create a connection between the secret documents on the gunrunning sting and voter identification laws.

But the problem for Holder remains that the core of the contempt issue is a human tragedy, not secret sex for the president or the firing of some U.S. attorneys. There is a dead Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, and untold others in Mexico and the U.S.

Even if voters believe that Republicans are motivated by political gain, they don’t seem pleased with the Obama administration stonewalling on the subject.

A new CNN poll tells the tale: Fifty three percent approved of the contempt finding compared to 33 percent who opposed it. Sixty nine percent thought that President Obama should not have invoked executive privilege to hide key documents in the case and should instead “answer all questions.”

The Republicans may certainly overplay their hands, especially if egged on by polls like that one, but right now, Holder and his refusal to comply with House demands looks like a drag for Obama.

And while the attorney general is courting controversy and firing up the base, he is also reminding voters about the secrets that he is keeping.

The Big Number

“$4.4 Billion”

-- Total political spending by labor unions from 2005 to 2011 according to a report by the Wall Street Journal that includes previously unreported outlays by union locals, spending on mobilizing members and other political activities. Previous estimates based on direct expenditures had been $1.1 billion for the same period.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“I think [the call for higher taxes on top earners] is a declaration by Obama, the fact that he has now pivoted back to this old issue that he has been touting for at least four years.  It's a declaration that he surrendered on the state of the economy and on the issue of his stewardship of it.  This is a white flag.  There is no way he can defend it.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET  at  http:live.foxnews.com.