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Trump Wants to Build a Wall Around the Internet. How Worried Should We Be? – Gizmodo



Illustration for article titled Trump Wants to Build a Wall Around the Internet. How Worried Should We Be?

Photo: Alex Wong (Getty Images)

Early this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the “Clean Network” plan, a trade war offensive aiming to cut Chinese tech companies off from United States consumers. Before a numb and beleaguered public could wrap its head around such a plan, Trump dispatched a pair of chaotic executive orders effectively aiming to ban TikTok and WeChat from American app stores within 45 days and then lobbed on a third executive order last Friday, extending the deadline for TikTok’s China-based parent company ByteDance to sell off its assets that support the operation of TikTok in the U.S. to 90 days. Together, this sounded to some like a blueprint for a Great Firewall, China’s own bulwark against foreign internet services.


The executive orders ban U.S. companies from doing business with the apps, but the initial TikTok order additionally leaves room for a forced sale of TikTok’s American arm to a domestic company (likely Microsoft or Twitter). The WeChat executive order offers less leeway, banning all transactions with WeChat itself, no matter who owns it, which will cut off a major avenue of communication between people in the U.S. and mainland China.


Both apps pose legitimate risks, and the Chinese government can demand that the companies hand over data. But the vague language of the executive orders and the “Clean Network” plan sounds a lot like Trump’s attitude toward immigration: All apps from one country are bad and dangerous. Or, in the words of the “Clean Network” plan, Chinese apps “threaten our privacy, proliferate viruses, and spread propaganda and disinformation.” The State Department billed the “Clean Network” plan as “new lines of effort,” which include: disconnecting Chinese carriers from U.S. telecoms; removing Chinese apps from U.S. app stores and doing the same to U.S. apps on Chinese stores or devices; removing U.S. data from Chinese company-provided cloud storage; and, oddly for a new policy, ensuring the security of undersea cables. (Presumably, the government would have already been working on that last one.)

It’s more of a vision board for racism and xenophobia than a plan, but Trump & Co. have already meddled with internet freedom at home. Republicans have salivated over rolling back Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which frees internet platforms from liability over user-generated content. It’s the foundational law that allows vital resources like Wikipedia, social media platforms, and even comments sections to exist; Trump most recently attempted to bludgeon it by executive order, after Twitter wounded him with a bit of extremely lenient moderation.

Given all of that, let’s entertain the possibility that Trump really, really wants a Great Firewall, meaning A) cutting off foreign platforms and B) censoring speech at home. How close could he get?

What Is A Great Firewall Anyway?

In simplest terms, China’s Great Firewall involves a combination of infrastructure patrolled by an army of human guards.


First, in order to land on, for example, your computer has to communicate with a DNS root name server, which converts “” to an IP address, a string of numbers necessary to retrieve the data which materializes as this website in your browser. (Read here for a more detailed explanation.) The Chinese state owns DNS root name servers, allowing it to block IP addresses, return the wrong address, and block search terms such as “Winnie the Pooh.” China also employs thousands of online censors and “internet police,” who show up at your doorstep for critiquing censorship or the president.

This model surely wouldn’t hold up in court against the First Amendment, and DNS root name servers aren’t owned here by a single government entity. But the government has successfully shut down websites, most recently via FOSTA-SESTA, a package of bills that outlawed the operating of websites perceived as facilitating sex trafficking by amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which, as I mentioned earlier, shields platform operators from liability for user-posted content. So far, FOSTA-SESTA enforcement has directly come down on few sites, namely the well-publicized seizure of Backpage with a showy FBI raid, relative to the reach of its chilling effect—causing preemptive shutdowns of sites like Craigslist personals and cancellations of real-world events like an annual sex worker conference. (The proposed EARN IT Act, a bipartisan FOSTA-SESTA 2.0, could now satiate Attorney General William Barr’s desire to strip encryption protections under the auspices of preventing child sexual abuse.)


But the U.S.’s internet infrastructure is vastly more complicated than China’s, after decades of support for the free flow of information.

“I used to describe it to people this way,” Mieke Eoyang, former staff member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told Gizmodo. “It’s like China is on an island; the traffic to the island gets there via a handful of bridges, and they can put toll booths on the bridges. And the United States is on the mainland, and it’s surrounded by other countries. The data flows easily and quickly all throughout, and it is co-mingled.”


A wall would require tearing down and rebuilding the internet, Eoyang explained, and the squandered time and effort would be an economically disastrous halt to whatever growth and innovation a nationalist blockade would supposedly aim to accomplish.

“I think it’s inevitable that whenever we are discussing a plan for internet regulation, especially when China is involved, even on the other side, that the Great Firewall gets brought up,” James Griffiths, author of The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet, told Gizmodo. But the comparison is “flawed,” Griffiths said, because the blockage of foreign services is a “minor” function compared to the censorship and surveillance that happens inside it, safeguarding a propaganda apparatus that stifles critics. (This includes WeChat, which does the same inside, and to some extent, beyond the wall.)


The concerns here are legitimate, Griffiths reiterated. Gathering vast troves of data is par for the course in Silicon Valley, but that doesn’t necessarily make it acceptable for TikTok to do so. “TikTok may never be able to convince U.S. regulators that as a Chinese company they could resist an illegal order from Beijing, when push comes to shove, but if they weren’t hoovering up so much data in the first place, that wouldn’t be such a concern,” Griffiths said. WeChat was “likely overdue a reckoning” given long-running accusations that it’s been censoring users outside of China.

The “Clean Network” plan does resemble “cyber sovereignty,” Griffiths noted, the concept that a country can shape and govern the internet within its borders, which might involve banning foreign apps, banning VPNs, or fencing in citizens’ data. Russia and China are codifying it into authoritarian policy, though even non-authoritarian governments might control the flow of data in the interest of economic protectionism or to prevent NSA spying on their citizens.


But China similarly invokes national security as a justification to censor speech and ice out foreign competition. He does find the moves “concerning”—as a trial balloon for “similarly broad executive orders” for targets that may be “far less legitimate” or reasons that are “more self-serving.”

What the Law Says

As has become customary with Trump’s executive actions, the legal challenges were swift. TikTok is reportedly expected to sue on the grounds that the Trump regime unconstitutionally neglected to give TikTok a chance to respond, and its U.S.-based employees, who may lose their jobs, are reportedly planning to sue over workers’ rights.


Also as usual, the chaotic executive orders are constitutionally shaky: Banning communicative apps raises First Amendment issues, the Electronic Frontier Foundation was quick to note. The Supreme Court has recognized software as a protected means of expression. “Banning distributing the app in [an] app store would raise the First Amendment rights of the app stores to distribute software,” EFF Deputy Executive Director Kurt Opsahl told Gizmodo. “Of course, it would be up to Apple and Google whether to assert that in the face of a purported distribution ban.”

In this light, forcing a sale of TikTok sounds a lot like robbery, especially after Trump threw in a gangsterish suggestion that the government would get a cut of any buyout.


“The [Clean Network] plan cites no legal authority, so I’d be interested to see if the State Department has coordinated this with the Department of Justice,” Eoyang told Gizmodo. Eoyang added that “there are huge, troubling legal issues here”—including sidestepping the Constitution, which gives only Congress the power to regulate foreign commerce. “[F]or the President to take an action like this, he’d need specific statutory authority to do so,” Eoyang said. “Absent the statutory authority, the President is acting by fiat, and not according to the Constitution to which he swore an oath.”

And Then There’s Executive Powers

Rules are anathema to the Trump regime, and though many executive orders have been put on hold or tied up in court for years (or are just meaningless), he’s issued revisions, and the Supreme Court’s conservative majority has been generous. Who would have imagined that a president could oppose funding for the U.S. Postal Service with the stated mission of preventing citizens from voting by mail? More often than not, Trump bulldozes expectations that actually turn out to be norms rather than laws.


“It is true that the president has no inherent, unilateral authority to create legally-binding rules relating to foreign investment in the United States,” Bobby Chesney, a law professor specializing in national security, has explained on the blog Lawfare, “but Congress can and has delegated that authority to the president in various ways.”

Namely, Chesney writes, in 1988, Congress passed an amendment to the Defense Production Act, which gives the president the power to block “mergers, acquisitions, or takeovers” that pose a national security threat. Trump could work through the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States—which reviews transactions past and present between foreign actors and U.S. companies—to exercise that power. In TikTok’s case, Trump has targeted the foreign transaction that China-based ByteDance made when it acquired TikTok’s predecessor,, in 2017.


Instead of the anticipated avenue, Trump used the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which grants the president power to regulate or prohibit “foreign exchange” under “unusual and extraordinary threat with respect to which a national emergency has been declared.” (The Act has previously been invoked during national emergencies such as the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.)

It’s safe to assume the considerable executive privilege wasn’t originally granted with a short-form video sharing app popular with teens in mind. Eoyang finds the justifications for the use of the act specious, and the potential enforcement mechanisms baffling. There may be some question over the constitutionality of the use of the IEEPA because “we’ve not really had courts peer behind the declaration of national emergencies.” Plus, this is “already weird,” she said: The executive orders against TikTok and WeChat assign regulation to the Secretary of Commerce, not the Secretary of State, who published the Clean Network plan.


“I just don’t understand how implementation is going to work,” Eoyang said. “Is [Trump] going to seek an injunction against an app store and say you cannot sell apps from China? And then what does it mean to be ‘from China’ under the national security definition? How is an operator of an app store to know what meets the definition without much more than that? Are you going to shut down these app stores? Are you going to fine people? All the enforcement mechanisms here seem really vague and unknown and problematic and certainly beyond what was envisioned in the [IEEPA].”

She added: “I don’t think they really understand what they’re trying to accomplish here.”


Is This Even a Legitimate Threat

“It feels squishy,” Andrew Grotto, former National Security Council cybersecurity official under both the Obama and Trump administrations, told Gizmodo just after the announcement of the “Clean Network” plan. One gaping hole is the legal definition of the national security “risk”; the Clean Network plan and the executive orders barely pinpoint the exact rules Chinese apps are breaking. (Nor have most TikTok critics, who point to data collection as a nefarious practice, but don’t really spell out the threat posed by collecting an average middle schooler’s information.)


A glaring hole in the “Clean Network” plan and the executive orders is the absence of clear delineation of the national security risks the apps pose and the policies they violate. Data collection in itself isn’t unusual, and unlike the EU, the U.S. doesn’t have federal legislation regulating data collection and privacy; nor does the U.S. have a law dictating that data can’t be shared with foreign governments. The government can’t enforce rules that don’t yet exist.

“What’s tricky is that we don’t have a baseline for what an acceptable level of data protection looks like,” Grotto told Gizmodo. “It’s hard to say how much additional risk foreign ownership poses.”


Grotto agreed that it’s fair to say that TikTok aggressively collects data, but how much more aggressively than Facebook? He added that he has “no doubt” that the Chinese government exercises its authority to collect data, but then again, the Chinese government already steals a ton of data. “It’s just not obvious to me which is a bigger risk,” he said, “the fact that China has this authority to collect data from companies that it has jurisdiction over versus their ability to just go out and steal.”


We called Grotto a second time after Trump released the executive orders; he noted that the action is blunt, the language is fuzzy, and the justification is loose. “The IEEPA is highly amenable to executive action, and the president loves executive action,” Grotto noted, adding that it gives Trump enormous leverage and discretion to wield power.

As usual, Trump doesn’t leverage that power with long-term planning and stability in mind, just blowing up his enemies. Grotto pointed out that, rather than target two mainstream companies, other administrations might have created a set of guidelines for the Treasury Department to follow in order to pinpoint individuals and companies now and in the future at its own discretion.


“The text of the Executive Order is very informal,” Grotto noticed, “particularly the chapeau—the introductory paragraphs that describe the rationale of the action.” The language, which is typically drafted in order for lawyers to comply with requirements, is rather a statement on the nefariousness of the Chinese Communist Party—for example, that WeChat captures personal information for Chinese nationals outside the country, “thereby allowing the Chinese Communist Party a mechanism for keeping tabs on Chinese citizens who may be enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives.” It’s true, but it sounds more like a thesis for a manifesto than a legal guideline.

And then, Grotto noted, the use of the word “reportedly” in this line from the TikTok executive order is just “really weird”:

TikTok, a video-sharing mobile application owned by the Chinese company ByteDance Ltd., has reportedly been downloaded over 175 million times in the United States and over one billion times globally.


“It either does or doesn’t censor content,” Grotto said, “and for an Executive Order from the President of the United States who has a vast surveillance intelligence-gathering infrastructure—to use the word ‘reportedly’ seems incredibly weak to me. It raises a lot of red flags. I’m in the camp where it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Chinese communist party requires companies to support their censorship regime, but why say ‘reportedly’?”

Most experts agree that the racially loaded language speaks for itself. The bans more likely signal economic decoupling from China, rather than a closed internet.


“Trains are computers on wheels,” Grotto pointed out, noting that they potentially surveil riders perhaps even more than TikTok—they have wifi networks, cameras, in some cases audio recorders, body scanners, and face recognition on the horizon—and lately Congress and Trump have floated the idea of banning the Chinese state-owned train manufacturer CRRC from selling to U.S. metro systems. “Other Chinese enterprises that present an interesting kind of matrix of risks that I could see the president taking more interest in,” Grotto said.

The legal hurdles standing in the way of the “Clean Network”—and the limited months before the next presidential election—mean full implementation is probably a project for a second term, if Trump gets one, Grotto explained. Though Trump may not have time to build a wall around the American internet, we should remain concerned about how much of the existing infrastructure he’s capable of destroying on his way out.


Have information about the ongoing TikTok or WeChat situation? We’d love to hear from you. Send an email to our tipline, contact our reporters individually, or send sensitive documents to our Secure Drop server.

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Chinese stocks underpin Asia; markets wary of virus spike, U.S. presidential debate – Reuters



SYDNEY (Reuters) – Chinese stocks drove Asian markets higher on Monday, though sentiment was still cautious ahead of a U.S. Presidential debate and as a spike in new coronavirus cases undermined global economic recovery hopes.

FILE PHOTO: People wearing protective masks, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, are reflected on a screen showing stock prices outside a brokerage in Tokyo, Japan August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File photo

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan advanced 0.5% to 550.47, but still within striking distance of a two-month low of 543.66 hit last week.

The index is set to end the month deep in the red after three straight monthly gains as the pandemic continues to wreak economic havoc around the world and raises investor anxiety about sky-high valuations.

Chinese shares opened higher and helped to underpin Asian markets after a tentative start, with the blue-chip CSI 300 index up 0.85%. Shanghai’s SSE climbed 0.5%.

Encouragingly, data over the weekend showed profits at China’s industrial firms grew for the fourth straight month in August buoyed in part by a rebound in commodities prices and equipment manufacturing.

Elsewhere, Japan’s Nikkei was 0.75% higher, partly on a lower yen, while South Korea’s KOSPI index gained 1.1%.

Australia’s main share index reversed early losses to edge up, led by positive news on the coronavirus front with new infections in the country’s second-most populous state of Victoria down sharply and allowing authorities to ease some of the mobility restrictions.

The broad gains in Asia follow a Wall Street rally on Friday though analysts expect the gains to be short-lived as expectations for economic growth start to falter.

Particularly worrying is a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Europe, dousing earlier hopes that authorities might have started to exert some control on the outbreak and raising further strains on businesses already grappling with losses.

“Clouds have started to gather over the developed world as political uncertainty increases in the U.S. and Europe grapples with a resurgence in COVID-19 cases,” Kerry Craig, Global Market Strategist, J.P. Morgan Asset Management.

COVID-19 cases are edging closer to 33 million around the globe with 992,470 reportedly dead with Europe seeing a surge in new infections.

“While governments are loathe to re-introduce nationwide lockdowns, localised and sector based restrictions may last for some time, restraining economic activity,” Craig added.

Investor focus will next be on the first debate between U.S. President Donald Trump and rival Joe Biden on Tuesday ahead of the November election.

A strong performance in Tuesday’s debate by Biden, who currently has a modest lead in betting odds and polls, might boost stocks related to global trade and renewable energy, while a perceived victory by Trump could benefit fossil fuel and defense companies.

Market focus will also be on progress on a new fiscal support package in the United States while investors will be closely watching UK-Europe post-Brexit trade talks as they continue this week.

In currencies, the dollar eased from a near a two-week high against the Japanese yen to 105.44.

The euro was last at $1.1628, not far from a two-month trough of $.1611 touched on Friday.

The British pound rose 0.1% to $1.2760.

The risk sensitive Australian dollar was slightly firmer at $0.7052 after falling for six consecutive sessions as odds narrowed over the prospect of further monetary policy easing in the country.

In commodities, oil prices came under pressure as renewed mobility curbs in various countries to contain a resurgence of coronavirus cases cloud the outlook on fuel demand recovery.

U.S. Brent crude slipped 18 cents to $41.74 a barrel while U.S. light crude was down 19 cents at $40.06.

Gold was a shade higher at $1,861.8, still some way off an all-time peak of above $2,000 an ounce touched in August.

Editing by Shri Navaratnam

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Amazon to hire 3500 workers in B.C. and Ont., expand their office footprint – CTV News


on Inc. will hire 3,500 Canadians to work in spaces it is opening and expanding in British Columbia and Ontario.

The e-commerce giant revealed Monday that 3,000 of the jobs will be in Vancouver, where it is growing its footprint, and another 500 will be in Toronto, home of a new Amazon workspace.

Jesse Dougherty, Amazon’s vice-president and Vancouver site lead, said the company wanted to offer the jobs in Canada because the country has an “enormous” amount of tech talent Amazon is eager to tap into and accommodate at home.

“I look at it through the lens of how can we grow so that people don’t have to leave Canada to learn and take on amazing global challenges that are of a scale that aren’t typically available here?” he said.

The new corporate and tech jobs will include software development engineers, user experience designers, speech scientists working to make Alexa smarter, cloud computing solutions architects, and sales and marketing executives.

The bulk of the jobs will be done out of the Post, a Vancouver building where Amazon will take over an extra 63,000 square metres of office space. By 2023 it will be operating across 18 floors it is leasing in the building’s north tower and 17 in its south tower.

Vancouver has long been seen as an attractive Canadian outpost for companies because of its proximity to the U.S. and major tech hubs including Silicon Valley and Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle.

The company will also welcome new workers in Toronto, where it will lease 12,000 square metres over five floors at an 18 York St. building that is not far from investors on Bay Street. It hopes workers will be in the building next summer.

Amazon’s renewed interest in its corporate and tech workforce and footprint in the country comes after focusing the bulk of its efforts in the market on its network of 16 fulfilment centres — 13 already in operation and another three coming in Hamilton, Ajax and Ottawa, Ont.

Those centres have faced homegrown competition from Shopify Inc., an Ottawa-based e-commerce business that has shot up the Toronto Stock Exchange to hold the title of country’s most valuable company several times this year.

While it was long known for providing the back-end for companies to sell goods online, Shopify launched its own fulfilment network in 2019 and bulked up its presence in Vancouver with 1,000 hires and a new office earlier this year.

Dougherty doesn’t appear to be nervous about Shopify.

“Amazon works in lots and lots of different businesses and all of them are highly competitive and we welcome that because it inevitably creates better experiences,” he said.

“There are other benefits to having other tech companies raise the bar in markets we work in because it educates more talent, you can move around and it creates more economic activity.”

Amazon has invested more than $11 billion in Canada, including infrastructure and compensation, delivered $9 billion to the country’s economy and helped create at least 67,000 jobs, he said.

However, many have those jobs have been dogged with concerns.

The Warehouse Workers Centre, a Brampton, Ont.-based organization representing people in the warehouse and logistics sector, started a petition earlier this year that garnered hundreds of signatures claiming “Amazon is failing to protect our health.”

The petition alleged that Amazon, which employs tens of thousands of people in Canada and has fulfilment centres in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec, was refusing to give workers paid leave and not telling staff what their plans are if facilities are contaminated or suspected of being contaminated with COVID-19.

The petition claimed physical distancing at its facilities is “nearly impossible” and said some warehouse workers are now putting in 50 hours a week or more, which the petition called “unsustainable” and said needs to stop.

Amazon has spent more than $800 million on employee safety since the start of the year, Dougherty said.

The company has unveiled temperature checks, physical distancing measures and offered personal protective wear as part of that investment.

“The health of our employees is absolutely critical to us,” Doughtery said. It is our top priority, so we are always paying attention to how those systems are working and ensuring they are the best they can be.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2020

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Presidential debates: Memorable moments mingle truth and myth –



U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden square off for the first of three scheduled debates Tuesday, an event sure to produce a number of sound bite moments.

In the 2016 debates with Hillary Clinton, Trump inspired memes with his “no puppet” denial of Russian influence, and his contention that “somebody sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds” could have been behind cyberattacks targeting Democrats has often been quoted.

Presidential debates, while often entertaining, are more importantly an opportunity for voters to get energized and learn about issues. But as far back as 1976, early in the history of televised presidential debates, an NBC News-Boston Globe poll indicated that just three per cent of those surveyed said the debates changed their vote.

Debates occur too late in the campaign to usually make a huge dent in the final election result, argues political science professor James Stimson. 

“There is no case where we can trace a substantial shift to the debates,” writes Stimson in Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics. He contends that conventions are usually more consequential when it comes to moving polls than debates, based on looking at nearly 40 years of polling data.

First debates have proven a particularly poor election bellwether. The candidate deemed the winner of the first debate in Gallup surveys has gone on to win the presidency just four out of 12 times.

Which is not to say that debates don’t matter, just that their impact is hard to isolate. Television news coverage often grafts memorable debate moments onto retrospective packages of elections past, whether there was a real connection to the result or not. Here’s a closer look at some of those moments:

Lazy narrative

Moderator Howard K. Smith sits between Sen. John Kennedy, left, and then Vice-President Richard Nixon during the first televised presidential debate in Chicago on Sept. 26, 1960. (AP)

Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy looked tanned and youthful during the first televised presidential debates in 1960, while then Vice-President Richard Nixon, who ill-advisedly applied a product called Lazy Shave to cover up his five o’clock shadow, looked wan and sweaty.

It’s a great story, but according to political science professors Christopher Wlezien and Robert Erikson, Kennedy’s polling average at the beginning of the first debate was commensurate with the support he got in the election.

WATCH | Kennedy shines, Nixon flops in first televised debate: 

In the first televised U.S. presidential debate, RIchard Nixon and John F. Kennedy square off. 1:00

There’s also a repeated narrative that Nixon was the preferred choice of radio listeners of the debate. Joseph Campbell in Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism and academics such as David Vancil and Sue Pendell in 1987 detailed how much of that narrative was fuelled by anecdotal reports.

In the one known market research survey of self-identified radio listeners, it was not clear that the smallish sample was representative in terms of factors like geography or religious beliefs. Picking Lyndon Johnson from Texas as his running mate was probably more consequential for Kennedy.

For his part, Nixon chose not to debate Hubert Humphrey (1968) and George McGovern (1972). Whether he was scarred by the 1960 experience or saw debating as a no-win scenario given his lead in the polls is open to speculation.

Gaffe didn’t drive Ford down

U.S. President Gerald Ford and wife Betty celebrate after securing the Republican nomination in Kansas City on Aug. 19, 1976. (Karl Schumache/Gerald Ford Library/Reuters)

The defining TV moment from 1976 occurred when then President Gerald Ford insisted in the second debate on Oct. 6 that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”

A serious gaffe to journalists and policy wonks, but there’s no evidence in debate surveys that voters paid it much mind. Americans were dealing with a recession, high inflation, rising gas prices and some of the worst-ever U.S. crime rates — the fate of Poland and Hungary in the shadow of a world nuclear power probably didn’t loom large.

WATCH | Ford’s fumble on Soviet question: 

[embedded content]

Furthermore, the Gallup poll of Sept. 30 showed Jimmy Carter enjoying an 11-point advantage in the polls, and by Oct. 12, six days after the Ford gaffe, it was just two points. The state of the race didn’t change drastically after a third debate.

Ford had trailed in one poll by 33 points in the summer, but Carter would then commit a few missteps and verbal miscues of his own on the campaign trail.

Ford lost the election by just 57 electoral college votes and two percentage points. His debate slip overshadowed the fact that he was within shouting distance of an incredible comeback.

One and done

Then President Jimmy Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan shake hands in Cleveland before the only presidential debate of 1980. Reagan’s calm, relaxed demeanor during the debate was seen as key to his victory. (Bettmann Archive)

Legislative changes in the 1970s helped ensure regular presidential debates going forward, but negotiations between the principals were fraught in 1980. There was only one Carter-Ronald Reagan debate, held just a week before the election.

During the debate, the candidates differed in their responses to questions about the handling of the ongoing Iran hostage crisis. Carter also sought to paint the Republican’s positions as superficial and inconsistent, but his persistent needling at one point led a smiling Reagan to shrug, “there you go again.”

WATCH | Reagan’s relaxed one-liner:

A key moment from the 1980 U.S. presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. 0:53

The one-liner came to crystallize the former actor’s optimism and ease on camera.

Reagan then wrapped up his night by asking Americans: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

That conclusion was favoured 45-33 over Carter’s in one poll, with the Harris Poll showing that of the respondents who saw a clear debate winner, it was Reagan 44-26.

With little time left for Carter to bounce back before election day, the debate has been widely viewed by academics as impactful in widening what had been until then a close race. The drift toward Reagan continued, leading to a nine-percentage point and 440-electoral college vote win.

While Reagan projected strength in the debate, the issue of U.S. hostages in Iran was more nuanced than is commonly portrayed. As detailed in Rick Perlstein’s book Reaganland, the 17 per cent in exit polls who thought the hostages were the top issue reported voting for Carter by a 2-to-1 margin.

Did crime pay?

Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis speaks during the first presidential debate with opponent George H.W. Bush in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Sept. 25, 1988. Dukakis likely faced an insurmountable deficit by the time he was forced to answer a controversial question in the third debate that October. (Bob Jordan/The Associated Press)

Moderator Bernard Shaw didn’t waste time with softballs in the second and final 1988 debate, asking Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis off the top: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favour an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, answered in a manner consistent with his longstanding position that capital punishment was not a deterrent while highlighting his state’s declining rates of violent crime. But his answer was seen by reporters as clinical and dispassionate.

WATCH | Dukakis’ dispassionate answer: 

[embedded content]

Dukakis later told frequent debate moderator Jim Lehrer that the issue had come up, “about a thousand times” in his political career. “Unfortunately, I answered it as if I’d been asked it a thousand times,” he said in Lehrer’s 2011 book Tension City.

In the retelling of that election, Dukakis’s answer along with a foreboding George H.W. Bush campaign ad about a Massachusetts prisoner who committed a violent sexual assault while on furlough have often loomed large.

But Bush was already up several points in the polls heading into the debates after trailing Dukakis early in the summer.

WATCH | George H.W. Bush’s attack ad: 

[embedded content]

Meanwhile, the ad was not widely seen and was amplified by news coverage largely after Bush took his polling lead, writes George Washington University professor John Sides.

In election exit polls, Bush was the overwhelming choice of voters on all economic questions. The capital punishment answer didn’t do Dukakis any favours, but he was likely dealing with an insurmountable deficit.

Sighs of the times

George W. Bush, left, and Al Gore, get animated during the third debate in 2000, a town hall in St. Louis. The assessment of Gore’s performance in the first debate may have been affected by subsequent media coverage. (Jeff Mitchell/Reuters)

The liberal use of a split screen effect in the first presidential debate of 2000 meant viewers got a full complement of Al Gore’s sighs and eye rolls as he grew exasperated with George W. Bush’s answers.

“We had to try to laugh about it. But really, it hurt us,” said Gore adviser Tad Devine in a 2016 New York Times oral history of the debate entitled Debacle.

A funny thing about that, though. Two polls in the hours after the debate had Gore winning above and beyond the margin of error, with a third poll essentially even. Despite this, it’s become accepted conventional wisdom among pundits that the performance hurt Gore. 

Political scientists D. Sunshine Hillygus and Simon Jackman posited that political realities can be mediated, whether through television pundits or, now, on social media.

“… debate watchers believed Gore won the first and third debate, but the individuals not watching the debates increasingly believed that Bush won those debates — perhaps in response to media interpretations of Gore’s smirks and sighs,” the academics said.

In any event, ascribing Gore’s Supreme Court-contested election loss to the first debate, or even the debates overall, is a tricky business, given that he won the popular vote by 500,000.

Romney puts Obama on the ropes

Then President Barack Obama, left, and Republican nominee Mitt Romney share a moment at the end of the first presidential debate in Denver, Colo., on Oct. 4, 2012, but the incumbent wasn’t laughing at the campaign polls that followed. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

The first 2012 presidential debate proved the most impactful despite lacking a signature moment on the order of Mitt Romney’s inartful, meme-inspiring “binders full of women” in the second debate, or when Barack Obama mocked Romney in the third debate for earlier declaring Russia was the “No. 1 geopolitical foe” of the U.S.

Obama had held a lead in nearly ever poll since June, but White House adviser David Axelrod didn’t feel secure.

“We were always worried about the first debate because it historically is a killing field for presidents,” Axelrod wrote in 2015’s Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, citing a common reluctance of busy presidents to take time out for debate prep.

WATCH | Obama feels the heat in first debate: 

Barack Obama faces added pressure in his rematch with Mitt Romney after the U.S. president’s first debate performance dispirited Democrats and sparked a surge in support for the former Massachusetts governor 5:26

Obama indeed came out flat after the first debate in the eyes of pundits, his team and viewers. Polls had Romney clearly winning.

“It wasn’t one of those classic debate gaffes: Richard Nixon mopping his sweaty brow; Michael Dukakis’s robotic response,” but it was clearly noticeable, wrote CNN’s Maeve Reston, capturing the consensus view.

Election polls soon swung dramatically in Romney’s favour, but Obama bounced back in the next two debates, where he was seen as more comfortable.

“Of course, the [first] debate did not change the outcome. … But it really did matter in that it changed the dynamics of the rest of the contest,” wrote Stimson. “Had Obama not improved in the second and third debates, defeat would have been a likely outcome.”

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