Last night, President Donald J. Trump faced former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden in the last of two 2020 general election debates. The event was hosted at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Commission on Presidential Debates kept the format mostly the same as the first debate, with six 15-minute segments dedicated to topics selected and announced in advance by the moderator, Kristen Welker of NBC News. Ms. Welker selected the following topics: (1) Fighting COVID-19; (2) American Families; (3) Race in America; (4) Climate Change; (5) National Security; and (6) Leadership.
A chaotic first presidential debate prompted the Commission to implement a rule that a candidate’s microphone could be muted while the other candidate gave their two-minute response to a question. The new rule proved effective as there were far fewer interruptions and the candidates had more substantive discussions that touched upon a greater number of issues.
Key remarks pertaining to health care follow:
COVID-19 – Ms. Welker opened the debate by asking each candidate how they would lead the country during the next stage of the coronavirus crisis. President Trump began by defending his response to the coronavirus that has killed 220,000 Americans to date, noting that 2.2 million people were “expected to die” (AP fact check). Despite cases increasing across much of the United States, the President also asserted that the situation is improving, citing an 85% decrease in the mortality rate and noting that “spike(s)” in Arizona, Florida, and Texas are “gone.” The President also highlighted his recent recovery from COVID-19 as an example of his administration’s success with fighting the virus, stating “more and more people are getting better.” In the remainder of his two minutes, Trump boasted about America’s production of personal protective equipment (PPE), sought to characterize the virus as a global problem, and reassured Americans that the pandemic is nearly over, stating “we’re rounding the corner. It’s going away” (AP fact check).
Vice President Joe Biden directly tied the number of coronavirus deaths to the President’s pandemic response, stating that “anyone [who] is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.” The former Vice President also criticized Trump’s lack of a national plan and resistance to issuing a mask mandate, which he noted would have saved 100,000 lives. In contrast, Biden explained that he would set national reopening standards and invest in rapid testing.
Kristen Welker asked President Trump about the timing of a vaccine for COVID-19 and which companies might produce it. The President responded that he believes there will be a vaccine by the end of the year, but one could come “within a matter of weeks.” He noted that Johnson & Johnson, Modena, and Pfizer have promising trials under way. Ms. Welker followed-up by asking the president how realistic his timeline is given comments from officials in his administration who say it could take well into 2021 for many Americans to get vaccinated, and that the use of masks and distancing will likely need to continue into 2022. The President responded that his timeline will be more accurate because of the military’s planned role in vaccine distribution.
Following-up with Biden, Kristen Welker asked what steps he would take to give Americans confidence in a vaccine if it were approved. The former Vice President explained that he would have a fully transparent process. In response, the President attacked Biden’s record on H1N1 and noted that Biden criticized his decision to suspend travelers from China early in the pandemic. Trump also insisted that his administration did everything Biden has said should be done to combat COVID-19, but that Biden was “way behind us.”
The candidates also sparred over the President’s comments about the pandemic ending soon. Biden stated that “there’s not another serious scientist in the world who thinks it’s going to be over soon,” to which Trump responded that he did not say the virus is going away, just that Americans are learning to live with it. He added that closing the economy is not the solution, asserting that “99.9% of young people recover and 99% of people recover.” Vice President Biden criticized the President’s response, insisting that instead of learning to live with the virus, people were “learning to die with it,” and accused the President of not taking responsibility. Trump reacted by stating “I take full responsibility” but quickly deflecting, saying “it’s not my fault that it came here” and then blamed China.
The segment ended with the candidates discussing their strategies for dealing with the virus. The President insisted that Biden would shut down the economy and schools, while Biden countered that he would “shut down the virus, not the country.” Biden acknowledged he was not ruling out future shutdowns, but asserted his response would differ from Trump’s in that he would provide sufficient resources and guidance to state and local governments to enable safe reopenings. The President doubled down with his assessment that “the cure cannot be worse than the problem itself,” criticizing the response of Democratic leaders in blue states and cities he views as heavy handed and economically damaging. Kristen Welker also asked President Trump about comments he made about Dr. Fauci, inquiring who the President is taking advice from if not his medical experts. Trump said he is listening to medical experts but sought to paint Dr. Fauci as flawed, attributing statements to him that indicate Dr. Fauci did not appreciate the dangerousness of the virus or the importance of wearing a mask.
The Affordable Care Act – Noting that the Supreme Court is set to determine whether to uphold or strike the Affordable Care Act (ACA) shortly after the election, Kristen Welker asked the candidates what they would do if 20 million Americans lost their health insurance. Trump responded by touting his termination of the individual mandate and describing his success with running the ACA as well as he could given that it “is no good.” The President said that “pre-existing conditions will always stay” and that he would like to “come up with a brand-new beautiful healthcare,” but he provided no specifics about what that might look like. As for how he might pass such sweeping legislation, Trump suggested that Democrats would acquiesce to pressure by constituents to pass an ACA replacement, or that Republicans might take control of the House – an outcome that polling predicts is highly unlikely. The President also inaccurately portrayed what a Biden administration would do on health care, stating that he would get rid of private insurance, a policy Biden has never supported.
In contrast, Vice President Biden provided details of his health care plan, which he called “Biden Care,” noting that it is essentially the ACA with a public option. He explained that his administration would implement automatic enrollment into the public option for individuals who qualify for Medicaid, and that they would work to reduce premiums and drug prices by increasing competition and permitting Medicare to negotiate on drug prices. Biden rebuked assertions by the President that he favors “socialized medicine” by pointing to the fact that the public option gives people a choice. Biden also highlighted the ideological differences between himself and Trump, stating “I think healthcare is not a privilege, it’s a right. Everyone should have the right to have affordable healthcare.”
Race and Policing – Ms. Welker asked the candidates to speak to the fears Black and Brown Americans have about policing and their safety when interacting with police. In his response, Vice President Biden acknowledged that “…there is institutional racism in America,” and that American has never lived up to its ideals when it comes to equality. President Trump pointed to the criminal justice reform, prison reform, and opportunity zones legislation he signed, saying “nobody has done more for the black community than Donald Trump.” He then pivoted to an attack on Biden over his support for the 1994 crime bill and his inability to pass reform during his 47 years in government. Vice President Biden responded that the Obama administration commuted a far greater number of sentences than Trump has and highlighted his proposal to give $20 billion to states to eliminate mandatory minimums and set up drug courts.
Other notable portions of the discussion centered on national security, immigration, and corruption. The discussion around corruption was marked by the President’s false claims alleging Joe Biden financially benefited from his son’s business dealings in Ukraine (AP fact check).