Coronavirus Is Starting Gun for Biden-Trump Debates

Joe Biden wore a gray pinstripe suit, complete with an American flag pin on the lapel, complemented by a red tie emblazoned with tiny donkeys, the mascot of the Democratic Party. He was 30 minutes late. His opponent, whom he simply called “Trump” on first reference, wasn’t even on stage.

After the delay, due to technical difficulties, the former vice president began his remarks, and it was immediately clear that his speech was meant to be a direct rebuttal to the president. It was a political debate. The topic: Coronavirus.

“No president can promise to prevent future outbreaks,” Biden said in Wilmington, Del., 24 hours after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. “But I can promise you this: When I’m president, we will be better prepared, respond better and recover better. We will lead by science.”

President Trump delivered his own address from behind the Resolute Desk the night before, and his administration has been racing to contain or mitigate the virus for weeks. While Democrats have been critical of the White House from the beginning, questioning officials on the technical aspects of their response to the pandemic, Biden was the first candidate to lay out, at a press conference, his vision of how a president ought to respond to a global health crisis.

As Biden spoke, the Center for Disease Control reported 1,215 domestic cases of the virus and 36 deaths. And from now until November, the coronavirus will represent a political volleyball. Biden began with a call to arms, an all-hands-on-deck response to the virus, and he assured the voting public that “Americans have the capacity to meet this moment.” During this struggle, he predicted that “we will come together as a nation.”

Then came the haymakers, each aimed squarely at the opponent he hopes to meet in November.

The coronavirus presents economic and public health challenges that Biden argued have “laid bare the severe shortcomings of the current administration.” Things are getting worse and fear is growing, he insisted, “by a pervasive lack of trust in this president, fueled by his adversarial relationship with the truth.”

The Democratic frontrunner released what he described “as a roadmap,” not for what would be done if he was elected, but for what should be done now. He said that it can be found on his campaign website, JoeBiden.Com, and he added that “President Trump is welcome to adopt it today.” Also, on his website: links to donate to the campaign.

Biden’s plan includes a number of specific medical measures. He promised a national response that would make testing free and widely available. He pledged to establish at least 10 mobile and drive-through facilities in every state. He would order FEMA to work hand-in-hand with local authorities to build temporary hospitals.

Biden would simultaneously pull a number of economic levers, including permanent and emergency plans for paid leave for those too sick to work. He also proposed establishing a state and local disaster fund to establish more permanent medical infrastructure.

Biden insisted, finally, that a domestic response was not enough, that the United States must battle the pandemic across the globe. “We have to,” he declared, “confront coronavirus everywhere.”

All of this is a change.

Moments of crisis in Washington were once unifying events – at least until the dust settled. There were always exceptions to the rule, of course. In the Trump-era, however, the exception has very much become the rule.

But speaking from the Oval Office, Trump tried to strike a somber tone, jettisoning his braggadocio to stick to his script. His statements still inexplicably included a number of misstatements and seemed to sow more confusion than it solved. Trump said that he was instituting a 30-day travel ban to and from Europe. His administration noted after the fact that the moratorium only applied to foreign nationals, not U.S. citizens, green card holders, or the families of U.S. citizens.

Trump also implied that the ban applied to European trade. Again, his administration made clear that the halt only applied to persons, not goods and services. Trump said that the insurance industry would “waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments.” Industry spokesmen scrambled to clarify that insurers would only waive payment for testing.

Nonetheless, this was a change for Trump. He was trying to calm a fearful nation and put the brakes on careening stock market at a moment of panic. Everyday life is quickly become affected. The nation’s professional basketball, hockey, and baseball leagues have cancelled or postponed their seasons. Actor Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson announced they have contracted the virus. Schools from pre-kindergarten to Ivy League universities are closing. Misstatements aside, the president did his best to reassure the public in somber tones.

Biden gave the president no quarter. He maintained that the president has sown confusion with his statements while scapegoating other countries and putting a rosy face on a runaway pandemic.

Biden did not, however, reference his own experience dealing with a pandemic — the swine flu outbreak of 2009.

Over one year, that H1N1 strain afflicted 60.8 million people, 274,304 of whom were hospitalized — with 12,469 dying from the virus in the United States alone, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

During that pandemic, Biden was blamed for inducing a public panic and prompting a stock market slide with misstatements that even some Democrats described as unfortunate fear-mongering. President Obama had warned sick and infected people to stay off airplanes and “any system of public transportation where you’re confined.”  

But Biden took it a step further to include all Americans — sick or well: “I would tell members of my family — and I have — I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now,” he said.

An hour later Biden’s office was firing off a statement backing off. The White House was pressured into issuing an apology, and the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy said, “Infectious disease experts are concerned that Biden’s comments could confuse and alarm the public.”

Biden also took issue with Trump in January for restricting travel from China where the virus originated, accusing Trump of the same type of fear-mongering and arguing, “This is not time for hysteria and xenophobia — hysterical xenophobia.”

According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Trump’s decision to shut down travel from China bought the U.S. more time to address the virus and likely saved lives.

The former vice president accused Trump of underfunding government agencies and routinely disparaging science. He repeated an argument Michael Bloomberg first used in the South Carolina – that the Trump White House cut a key National Security Council post for global health security and biodefense that President Obama had put in place.

“Our administration created that office to better respond to future global health threats after the Ebola crisis in 2014,” Biden said. “It was designed for exactly this scenario.”

“President Trump eliminated the office two years ago,” he added.

Several media outlets have verified part of the claims, finding that former National Security Adviser John Bolton dissolved the office in 2018 as part of a reorganization. But just because the lead position was eliminated doesn’t mean that everyone who was a part of the team was fired or that all of the functions ceased, found.

White House officials did not bother to respond to Biden. Perhaps fittingly – because this was the first unofficial debate of the 2020 general election — they left that task to the Trump Campaign.

“In times like this, America needs leadership and Biden has shown none,” campaign communication director Tim Murtaugh said in a written statement. “President Trump acted early and decisively and has put the United States on stronger footing than other nations. His every move has been aimed at keeping Americans safe, while Joe Biden has sought to capitalize politically and stoke citizens’ fears.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.

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