Tuesday night, September 29, President Donald J. Trump faced former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden in the first of three 2020 general election debates. The event was hosted at the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion, part of a joint campus shared by Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic is serving in the capacity of health security adviser for all general election debates.
As designed and announced by the Commission on Presidential Debates, the format of the event consisted of six 15-minute segments dedicated to topics selected and announced in advance by moderator Chris Wallace, anchor of the program Fox News Sunday. The longer-form segments were chosen “in order to encourage deep discussion of the leading issues facing the country.” Mr. Wallace selected the following topics: “(1) The Trump and Biden Records; (2) the Supreme Court; (3) COVID-19; (4) the Economy; (5) Race and Violence in our Cities; and (6) the Integrity of the Election.”
Key remarks pertaining to health care follow:
- The Affordable Care Act – Asked where he believed the appointment of President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, would lead the court, Vice President Biden said that the President has made it clear that he wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and is pursuing that aim in court right now. “I’m not opposed to the Justice, she seems like a fine person,” Biden said; however, he noted that she’s written in the past that she believes the ACA is unconstitutional. The Vice President said striking down the ACA would strip 20 million people of their health insurance, remove fundamental protections for people with preexisting conditions, and remove protections against women being charged more for care. He noted that Roe vs. Wade will also be at stake if she is appointed. Biden stated that people are already casting their votes in the election, and placing a new Justice is “not appropriate” to do until February.
In response, President Trump said that Biden’s plan is to “extinguish private health care for 80 million people, and added “your party wants to go socialist.” Biden defended his health plan, stating that he has proposed to expand Obamacare and increase it but that he has not said he would eliminate private insurance. “I am the Democratic party right now,” Biden said, implying that his own health plan will supersede more left-leaning calls for a single-payer system. He also responded to the implication that his plan would pull people off of their preferred plans and automatically enroll them in a public option. Biden said this is only true for low income people who would otherwise qualify for Medicaid coverage.
Chris Wallace asked President Trump about his own plan for health care, noting that he has promised for four years now to repeal and replace “Obamacare” (the ACA), but has never put forth a plan. The President responded saying that he is cutting drug prices. “I’m going with favored nations,” he said, and claimed that drug prices will come down “80 to 90 percent” (AP fact check). “Obamacare is no good,” he said, and then stated that he made it better by getting rid of the individual mandate and then “guaranteeing preexisting conditions” – a reference to his recent Executive Order (details).
Concluding the chaotic first segment, Vice President Biden stated that President Trump “is not for any help for people needing health care,” noting that many have lost coverage along with their jobs during the pandemic and restating that millions would lose it if the ACA is struck down. He stated that Trump has no plan for health care, and that his executive orders have no power. “The fact is, this man doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
- COVID-19 – Mr. Wallace asked each candidate why the American people should trust him to manage the COVID-19 pandemic more than his opponent. Vice President Biden began, noting that over 200,000 people have died from the disease so far under the President’s watch, and 7 million have been infected. He cited evidence that President Trump knew all the way back in February that COVID-19 was a deadly disease, but he didn’t warn anyone because he didn’t want to panic people. Biden added, that it was the President who panicked, or that perhaps he “looked at the stock market” and chose inaction. Vice President Biden touted his pandemic response plan, which he said he laid out back in March and again in July, and added that we should be approving the House-passed aid package to provide people the money they need to reopen schools and businesses.
President Trump defended his record, touting his move to suspend travelers from China and adding that this saved thousands of lives and that Biden would have left the country wide open. Trump claimed that many U.S. governors have said he’s done a “phenomenal job.” “We got the gowns, we made the ventilators,” he said. Then, turning to Biden, he said “you wouldn’t have made ventilators… You could never have done the job we did.” He accused Vice President Biden of creating a disaster in response to the H1N1 pandemic during the Obama Administration. Vice President Biden defended his record on H1N1 response, and then appealed again to the audience asking how many people at home have lost a loved one to COVID-19, or have had to speak to a family member in the hospital from a camera held by a nurse.
Chis Wallace asked President Trump about instances in which he has contradicted his top government scientists, particularly as it pertains to the development of a vaccine and the speed at which it will be available to the American public. President Trump said that, despite what officials such as CDC Director Robert Redfield have claimed, he has spoken with the companies manufacturing the vaccines and they assure him that one will be ready by year-end. He said the process has been highly politicized and that some people don’t want there to be a vaccine until after the election.
Vice President Biden contended that a company may have a successful vaccine by the end of the year, but that the process to distribute them will take longer. He then addressed questions from Mr. Wallace as to whether Biden himself, and his running mate Kamala Harris, may be contributing to the potential for Americans to distrust or fear an eventual vaccine. Mr. Wallace referenced comments made by Senator Harris that public health experts were being “muzzled and suppressed” by the Administration. Biden countered that it is President Trump who is pressuring scientists and thereby causing mistrust or confusion.
On the topic of reopening the economy, Vice President Biden said the way to open businesses is to give them the wherewithal to reopen, including by providing personal protective equipment (PPE) and clear guidelines. Regarding masks, Biden quoted Anthony Fauci in saying that universal mask use between now and January alone would save close to 100,000 lives. Pressed on the same question, President Trump said he thinks masks are okay. “I wear them when needed” he said, “but I don’t wear masks like [Biden].”
- Racial Equity and Civil Unrest – Mr. Wallace asked the candidates to describe their approach issues of racial equity and civil unrest. Vice President Biden cited a distressing statistic that right now, one in 1,000 African Americans have been killed by COVID-19, and that the figure is projected to rise to one in 500 by year-end. In reference to the recent decision not to charge the officers involved in the shooting of Breonna Taylor, Biden stated that he does not believe justice is equally applied in our nation. He acknowledged that there is systemic injustice in this country in education, the economy, and in law enforcement. He said that if he becomes president, he would call together civil rights leaders and police chiefs to find solutions and create a system where people are held accountable. He added that violence “is never an appropriate response,” and later clarified that he is “totally opposed” to efforts to defund police departments.
President Trump quickly turned the conversation toward “law and order,” suggesting that Biden cannot even speak the words “law enforcement” because he would lose support from “the radical left.” He the pointed to Biden’s record passing the 1994 crime bill, and said that Black people have never forgotten that. Asked to address his recent Executive Order banning racial sensitivity trainings at government organizations, he said that they were “racist” and that people had complained to him they were being asked to do things that were “insane.” Mr. Wallace asked the President what is radical about racial sensitivity training, and he replied that in some cases the government had been paying people “hundreds of thousands of dollars to teach kids sick ideas and to teach people to hate their country.” In another moment, noted by most observers and media, President Trump also refused to publicly denounce white supremacist groups and right wing militias, telling the group the Proud Boys to “stand back and standby” instead.
Other notable portions of the discussion centered on the economy and the integrity of the current election. This discussion was marked by numerous false and unsubstantiated claims by the President alleging widespread fraud associated with mail-in ballots. As he has in other recent appearances, the President refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power or to refrain from declaring victory until the election results are independently certified. Vice President Biden did make this commitment. Biden expressed concern that the Supreme Court or any court would be charged with deciding the election, but assured that if he lost he would concede.
Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris will face off in a vice presidential debate at the University of Utah next Wednesday, October 7, before the presidential candidates resume their scheduled engagements on October 15 and October 22. Additional information is available at www.debates.org/.