Political Profiling of Democratics by Bush U.S. Attorneys?

Some of the liberal bloggers that conservatives actually read, notably Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein guest poster Brian Beutler, are touting a study by University of Minnesota communications profs Donald C. Shields and John F. Cragan which finds that from the start of the Bush Administration in January 2001 through December 2006, “the offices of the U.S. Attorneys across the nation investigate seven (7) times as many Democratic officials as they investigate Republican officials, a number that exceeds even the racial profiling of African Americans in traffic stops.”

Shocking proof of political prosecutions on the part of Bush cronies, right?

Not so fast. Megan McArdle and her friends at the Economist‘s Big Brother blog point out some major reasons to suspect otherwise.

  • Officials in urban areas are “overwhelmingly disproportionately Democrats.”
  • Cities are where the action is in terms of local government corruption scandals.
  • U.S. Attorneys offices are located in major cities.
  • The data set consists only of incidents reported in big city newspapers.
  • No data is given for pre-Bush periods for comparison.

The last point is especially critical, as it would seem obvious that one needs a baseline to support charges of political motivation.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. That latter point is huge.

    Further, the study was done by communications profs, not legal scholars or political scientists who typically would study such stuff, making me further question their methodology.

  2. Triumph says:

    Officials in urban arias

    Yes–the plague of operatic transgressions in American cities must be stopped!

  3. James Joyner says:

    Yes—the plague of operatic transgressions in American cities must be stopped!

    Spelling corrected in post but, yes, this issue deserves further attention.

  4. legion says:

    Well, here’s another legal question, somewhat topic-related. Kyle Sampson is currently testifying that, among other things, he “isn’t aware” of any documents showing Presidential inputs or decisions on the USA firings. The big defense for this affair is that the USAs serve “at the pleasure of the President”, but if that’s so, how can random DoJ staffers, not even including (if anything he says can possibly be believed at this point) the AG himself, be making these firing decisions?

    Isn’t that de facto evidence of an illegal process?

  5. Anderson says:

    Not sure I buy that, Legion. Obviously, any president delegates a good deal … Bush, more than others, perhaps.

    Agreed also that pre-2001 baseline data would be interesting, tho I suspect it would bear out the libs’ point here. There is other evidence that, whatever the facts, Rove is using the excuse of “voter fraud” to quell Democratic voters.

  6. Hal says:

    I’d love to see the conservative bloggosphere actually pick up the mantle and – you know – do some research instead of just smugly pointing out the issue and relying on a tactic based on creating uncertainty and doubt. How much better our debate would be if, instead, we were greeted by a post actually containing a study rather than simply a a long list of “fear, uncertainty and doubt”.

    I mean, half of you guys are academics or used to be. I’m just a poor, pitiful capitalist cog and even I know the value of actual research as opposed to simply casting doubt.

    Sure, the latter easier and has the unfortunate advantage of actually working. And then there’s the unfortunate possibility that the data will actually dispel the doubts that one is so carefully trying to seed.

    But if one is trying for intellectual honesty…

  7. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Probably a strong sign that democrats are committing more crimes, running afoul of the laws, particularly election laws like letting dead people vote in Washington State, than Republicans. Any thinking person already knew that. Democrats have never followed the rules. Date at least back to Kennedy and Chicago. Now that the morally defective ethic less left has control of the Democrats, what do you expect?

  8. James Joyner says:

    I’d love to see the conservative bloggosphere actually pick up the mantle and – you know – do some research instead of just smugly pointing out the issue

    So, really, you expect that we’re supposed to spend months collecting data and running analysis rather than responding to a study that’s being cited right now as part of a hot topic debate? We can’t point out the flaws that we see in the study off the top of our heads?

    Conversely, next time conservatives cite a study by Cato or Heritage, it’ll be taken at face value until liberal bloggers go out and conduct their own studies?

  9. Hal says:

    We can’t point out the flaws that we see in the study off the top of our heads?

    Of course not. But considering all the amazing energy dedicated to typography shown in the past, one would think that people who have access to this data can easily do some informal work on seeing if there’s some heat behind the fire.

    My point is that Megan and perhaps you are more interested in simply seeding doubt than getting the actual answers to the questions asked.

    All I see in response to the larger context in which this report is embedded is simply the earnest sowing of seeds of doubt. A cultivation of the portrayal that there’s nothing to see, just keep moving along.

    Which is a strategy one would expect when one is sitting on the side of the isle where all the smoke is coming from.

    And with respect to the next Cato or Heritage report coming out, and in particular to the actual issue raised, I would like to know where you have seen your counterparts on the left merely letting things lie with a questions rather than digging deeper and discovering if there’s fire behind the smoke? I can think of Deltoid, where Tim Lambert tirelessly digs beneath the boatloads of bullsh*t and not just raises questions like y’all have done, but actually produces the data, references and constructs actual testable theories in response.

    Or look at Josh Marshall who has actually started quite the business of literally raking through all the muck he’s seeing lying about the place.

    Perhaps there’s a lot of b and c and perhaps f level bloggers like myself on the left that just cast questions to the wind, but this site has not just yourself but a whole stable of bloggers who proudly proclaim their expertise and such.

    Again, one wouldn’t want to fall into the trap of “well, why aren’t you blogging about this”, but you are – you know – actually blogging about it. Maybe you could rattle a few cages and see if there’s anything behind the smoke you smell.

    Because, if you did, my god, what a coup! You’d show those progressives that they really are just getting high sniffing smoke and you down to earth, solidly grounded conservatives can show the world just how deluded we actually are.

    But again, the path of sowing seeds of doubt is the easier path and for the effort involved, quite rewarding.

  10. Hal,

    As one who has hardly defended the administration on this issue, my reaction is that the listed criticism to the study are fair. Any study of this type, to have any validity for assessing the numbers, requires comparative (and comparable) data. One cannot count in a vacuum and then declare a finding that actually tells one anything about the number discovered.

    And, I must admit, I question the relevance of including racial profiling as some measure of consequence that one can compare “political profiling.”

    Further, there are legitimate reasons to wonder why communications professors are doing this type of study. It is not really a communications issue–except that they appear to be interested in the press coverage angle.

    I would underscore that it would not surprise me that if some of these USAs were ousted because of whom they were or were not investigating. However, to date we actually have no hard evidence in that regard. Further, this study, which is really about press coverage (the communications angle) is problematic in terms of proving political profiling. I can say that without doing a counter-study because I know enough about how to use data.

  11. just me says:

    I think the last post is especially critical, you can’t draw a conclusion without at least two points of comparison. At the very least a comparison to previous presidents, especially Clinton and Carter would be useful.

    Also, I would like to have seen research on convictions. I think the argument that some prosecutors start investigations as a sort of harrassment is an interesting one, and I think a comparison of how many of the investigations led to convictions verses how many were either dropped or just peetered away would be interesting.

    Either way, I don’t think you can really say much about motivation from those stats, you can only draw the conclusion at this point that more democrats are being investigated-you can’t conclude that the investigations are out of line or unjustified.

  12. spencer says:

    Actually, if you read the study you find that officials in urban areas are NOT disproportionately Democrats. The author stated that the distribution was 50% dems, 40% rep and 9% independents.

    It may be like the claims that the press is liberal. It depends on how you define it. If you include all the little local papers and radio stations and weight them equally you find that the press is overwhelmingly republican. But if you only look at the major national press you get different results.

    But this is what we get with people parsing the data and defining it so as to make their talking point rather then to shed light on the subject.

  13. James Joyner says:

    Actually, if you read the study you find that officials in urban areas are NOT disproportionately Democrats. The author stated that the distribution was 50% dems, 40% rep and 9% independents.

    Nope. That’s the distribution of local elected officials throughout the nation. That’s heavily skewed toward rural areas.

  14. Tano says:

    Just becuse the USAs are based in cities, does that justify them focusing primarily on corruption cases in cities?

  15. James Joyner says:

    Just becuse the USAs are based in cities, does that justify them focusing primarily on corruption cases in cities?

    The linked posts provide details.

  16. jpe says:

    Cities are where the action is in terms of local government corruption scandals.

    Here’s where the question is begged.

  17. Beldar says:

    This is all very interesting and useful, but aren’t you overlooking the most obvious potential explanation for why more Democrats may be the subject of investigation?

    Maybe (gasp!) there just are more corrupt Democratic politicians than corrupt Republican ones.

    Related point: U.S. Attorneys themselves are political appointees, but they generally serve as managers of very large staffs composed of career prosecutors — and they, in turn, are as likely to be Democrats or apolitical as Republicans, and they are likely in any event to be dedicated to public service (since they almost all could make much more money in a heartbeat by going to the private sector). I am reasonably confident that only a tiny percentage of investigations are initiated by U.S. Attorneys themselves, and that the vast, vast majority are initiated either by law enforcement agencies (e.g., the FBI) or career prosecutorial staff.

    So if you really want to see whether there is a political bias at work, you need to narrow your focus to investigations initiated by, or on the express instructions of, the U.S. Attorneys themselves, and exclude all those others. Alternatively, to “include in” those other investigations, you’d have to come up with a persuasive reason why those who initiated them can be assumed (as is being presumed for political appointees) to have political motivations.

  18. bob in fl says:

    There are many good points listed here, and some not so good. Anyone with a basic knowledge of statistics can look at the public record to find the stats for investigations, indictments, & convictions, (especially the conviction ratio) & provide a verifiable study.

    I would also suggest that these same stats be collected for all administrations, going back to at least Carter. I believe Bush has fired more US As w/o legal reasons at mid term than all of the rest combined. But that is not an issue if all other Admins showed similar “bias”.

    Also keep in mind that what they did was legal. Lying about those reasons, though, is illegal.

  19. legion says:

    Beldar,
    A reasonable question, and one that should be asked in any logical examination, but one that can also be quickly dismissed for simple economic reaons. The Democrats have been out of power in much of the country for several years now; there’s not much point in paying off people who can’t actually do much for you. Why bribe the city councilman (of party A) if the state legislature (run by party B) can run roughshod over him?