Thursday's final presidential debate contained many familiar lines and few surprises, but did give the country some insight into what each candidate would do to fight COVID-19 when they take (or retain) office in 2021.
Throughout the debate, former Vice President Joe Biden's strategy was often to speak directly to the American people and attempt to paint President Donald Trump as out of touch with the struggles of middle America. Trump, on the other hand, adopted a strategy more typical of challengers than incumbents, turning the conversation at every opportunity to the Obama administration's actions and failures to act, including that administration's response to the H1N1 swine flu.
In the opening discussion on COVID-19, Trump also made a number of false or questionable statements about the virus, telling debate moderator Kristen Welker a COVID-19 vaccine was "ready" and referring to his own cocktail of COVID-19 treatments as a "cure."
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He also downplayed or denied recent surges in the virus and assured the audience that the military had a plan for distributing a vaccine.
"There was a very big spike in Texas. It's now gone," Trump said. "There was a very big spike in Arizona. It's now gone. And there were some spikes and surges in other places; they will soon be gone. We have a vaccine that's coming. It's ready. It's going to be announced within weeks. And it's going to be delivered. We have Operation Warp Speed, which is the military is going to distribute the vaccine."
Biden pushed back on Trump's rosy view of the situation, citing rising cases and death numbers and asserting that for the majority of Americans, a vaccine is unlikely before mid-2021.
"This is the same fellow who told you, 'This is going to end by Easter'," Biden said, referring to his opponent. "This is the same fellow who told you that, 'Don't worry, we're going to end this by the summer.' We're about to go into a dark winter, a dark winter, and he has no clear plan. And there's no prospect that there's going to be a vaccine available for the majority of the American people before the middle of next year."
Asked about his own plans, Biden stressed masks, rapid testing and federal leadership on safe reopenings.
"What I would do is make sure we have everyone encouraged to wear a mask all the time," Biden said. "I would make sure we move into the direction of rapid testing, investing in rapid testing. I would make sure that we set up national standards as to how to open up schools and open up businesses so they can be safe and give them the wherewithal, the financial resources to be able to do that. We're in a situation now where the New England Medical Journal, one of the serious, most serious journals in the whole world, said for the first time ever that the way this president has responded to this crisis has been absolutely tragic. And so folks, I will take care of this. I will end this. I will make sure we have a plan."
On reopenings, Trump responded by stressing the economic costs of lockdowns.
"We have to open our country or we're not going to have a country," he said. "… We can't keep this country closed. This is a massive country with a massive economy. People are losing their jobs. They're committing suicide. There's depression, alcohol, drugs at a level that nobody's ever seen before. There's abuse, tremendous abuse. We have to open our country. I've said it often, the cure cannot be worse than the problem itself, and that's what's happening. And he [Biden] wants to close down. He'll close down the country if one person in our massive bureaucracy says we should close it down."
On the topic of the Affordable Care Act, the debate was largely a rehash of the first debate, with the president attempting to tie Biden to the Medicare for All strategy of his primary opponents rather than the ACA-plus-public-option Biden, in fact, supports.
"What I'm going to do is pass Obamacare with a public option, and [it will] become Bidencare," Biden said. "The public option is an option that says that if you in fact do not have the wherewithal, if you qualify for Medicaid and you do not have the wherewithal in your state to get Medicaid, you automatically are enrolled, providing competition for insurance companies. That's what's going to happen."
Trump also touted lower premiums for ACA plans under his watch, a claim that is technically correct, but misleading – premiums rose massively in 2018 but dropped in 2019 and 2020.
The president was typically vague on his healthcare plans, saying he'd "like to terminate Obamacare, come up with a brand new, beautiful healthcare."