Donald Trump

What the First Trump-Biden Debate Taught Us Last Time

In between insanities, the erratic Republican was considerably more right about COVID-19 policy in September 2020 than the smug Democrat or the scoldy journalist.


Viewed in hindsight, the first general election debate of any given presidential cycle can be hilariously off-topic, even directly misleading about how the candidates would govern on issues of national import.

In 1988, 14 months before the decadeslong menace of international communism suddenly collapsed, moderator Jim Lehrer kicked off the George H.W. Bush–Michael Dukakis contest with what he described as the "number one domestic issue to a majority of voters"—illegal narcotics. "What is there about these times," the PBS legend needed to know, "that drives or draws so many Americans to use drugs?" (The elder Bush then treated 65 million viewers to a disquisition on the comparative demerits of Crocodile Dundee.)

Jimmy Carter in the first debate of 1976 emphasized as his "top priority" putting people back to work while ending the "inflationary spiral." This did not pan out. George W. Bush in 2000 differentiated his foreign policy from Al Gore's by saying, "If we don't stop extending our troops all around the world and [doing] nation-building missions, then we're going to have a serious problem coming down the road. And I'm going to prevent that." Reader, he did not.

But something quite different, yet already forgotten (if indeed it was ever really understood), happened the first time Donald Trump squared off with Joe Biden in 2020. Sure, the post-debate headlines would summarize the event as a "shitshow," and accurately enough—Trump never stopped interrupting, often with non sequitur accusations about "the mayor of Moscow's wife" giving Hunter Biden $3.5 million; Biden, in between "Come on!"s, called Trump a dog-whistling "racist" and "the worst president America has ever had"; poor Chris Wallace was playing the "Mr. President, I'm the moderator of this debate" card within the first 10 minutes.

Yet poking through the smothering vulgarity was an actual exchange of substance on a policy area of grave importance: COVID-19. And although revisiting September 2020 is like being dropped back into the middle of a bad acid trip, a hindsight reading of the pandemic discussion reveals what may come as a startling reality: Trump on this most important of topics was the most right person on stage, with both Biden and Wallace foreshadowing the smug illiberalism that would dominate COVID policy and discourse for the next two years.

"The second subject [tonight] is COVID-19, which is an awfully serious subject," Wallace admonished. "So let's try to be serious about it." Alas, the moderator did not heed his own advice.

In a segment teed up as being forward-looking on COVID policy, Wallace, with the tone of an exasperated elementary school teacher, badgered the president about having the temerity to believe—accurately, it would turn out—that a vaccine would arrive earlier than some government scientists predicted:

WALLACE: President Trump, you have repeatedly either contradicted or been at odds with some of your government's own top scientists. The week before last, the head of the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. [Robert] Redfield, said it would be summer before the vaccine would become generally available to the public. You said that he was confused and mistaken; those were your two words. But Dr. [Moncef] Slaoui, the head of your Operation Warp Speed, has said exactly the same thing. Are they both wrong?

TRUMP: Well, I've spoken to the companies, and we can have it a lot sooner. It's a very political thing, because people like this would rather make it political than save lives.


TRUMP: It is a very political thing. I've spoken to Pfizer, I've spoken to all of the people that you have to speak to: Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and others. They can go faster than that by a lot. It's become very political because the left…or I don't know if I call them left, I don't know what I call them.

WALLACE: So you're suggesting that the head of your Operation Warp Speed, Dr. Slaoui—

TRUMP: I disagree with him. No, I disagree with both of them. And he didn't say that. He said it could be there, but it could also be much sooner. I had him in my office two days ago.

WALLACE: He talked about the summer, sir, before it's generally available. Just like Dr. Redfield.

TRUMP: Because he said it's a possibility that we'll have the answer before November 1. It could also be after that.

WALLACE: I'm talking about when it's generally available, not—

TRUMP: Well, we're going to deliver it right away. We have the military all set up; logistically, they're all set up. We have our military that delivers, soldiers, and they can do 200,000 a day. They're going to be delivering—

BIDEN: This is the same man who told you—

TRUMP: It's all set up.

BIDEN: …by Easter, this would be gone away; by the warm weather, it'd be gone. Miraculous, like a miracle. And by the way, maybe you could inject some bleach in your arm, and that would take care of it. This is the same man.

TRUMP: That was said sarcastically, and you know that. That was said sarcastically.

BIDEN: So here's the deal: This man is talking about a vaccine. Every serious company is talking about maybe having a vaccine done by the end of the year, but the distribution of that vaccine will not occur until sometime beginning of the middle of next year to get it out, if we get the vaccine. And pray God we will. Pray God we will.

WALLACE: Mr. Vice President, I want to pick up—

TRUMP: You'll have the vaccine sooner than that.

Trump was right: The vaccine was widely available to the public by March 2021.

Biden at the debate went so far as to cast doubt on the integrity of Operation Warp Speed, saying: "In terms of the whole notion of a vaccine, we're for a vaccine, but I don't trust him at all. Nor do you. I know you don't. What we trust is a scientist." When challenged on this seeming tilt toward vaccine hesitancy, Biden offered a critique that in the rearview mirror looks more like projection: "He puts pressure [on] and disagrees with his own scientists."

It would take the Biden White House less than one month before applying political pressure on COVID science in a way that materially damaged tens of millions of kids. New Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, who as a civilian infectious disease specialist the summer before had recommended against applying the "six-foot rule" of average distance maintained between K-12 students (because doing so would effectively close schools, even though kids were far less vulnerable to the virus), suddenly (and unconvincingly) reversed herself in February 2021, thus sentencing all children in CDC-compliant schools to educationally and socially deleterious remote and hybrid learning.

Those new school guidelines, which were eventually rolled back in the face of widespread blue-state revolt, came partly as the result of input from the monolithically Democratic Party–supporting teachers unions, whose leaders met directly with Walensky to shape that science.

Biden, who likes to brag about sharing a bed with a teachers union member, embraced as both candidate and president the union view—already rejected by most of the rich world by fall 2020—that school reopening should go slowly, and only on the condition of a massive federal payout (very little of which would end up being directed at disease mitigation).

Asked at that first debate why he was "much more reluctant than President Trump about reopening the economy and schools," Biden retorted, "Because he doesn't have a plan. If I were running it, I'd know what the plan is." That plan turned out to be showering schools and businesses with combined trillions in federal dollars, helping produce the highest inflation in four decades.

Trump criticized Biden for wanting to "shut down the country," arguing that the lockdowns he engineered in March 2020 were temporary crisis actions in a viral and informational environment that had changed drastically by September. "We just went through it. We had to, because we didn't know anything about the disease," the president said. "Now we've found that elderly people with heart problems and diabetes and different problems are very, very vulnerable. We learned a lot. Young children aren't, even younger people aren't. We've learned a lot, but he wants to shut it down. More people will be hurt by continuing [the shutdowns]."

Trump's rhetorical emphasis on protecting the vulnerable and speeding the vaccine while allowing the rest of society to reopen would be echoed a couple of weeks later by the Great Barrington Declaration. Which, like Trump's approach, would be brutalized upon arrival by Democrats, journalists, public health bureaucrats, and government jawboners. America would have been much better off considering that viewpoint rather than trying to stifle it.

That brings us to the 2020 exchange on masks, which was the second big journalistic takeaway from the debate, with Trump mostly seen as the obvious loser.

Wallace began that portion in medium-to-high dudgeon: "President Trump, you have begun to increasingly question the effectiveness of masks as a disease preventer. And in fact, recently you have cited the issue of waiters touching their masks and touching plates. Are you questioning the efficacy of masks?"

"No, I think masks are OK….I mean, I have a mask right here," Trump replied, pulling one out. "I put a mask on when I think I need it." But then he turned his trademark insult comedy toward Biden. "I don't wear a mask like him. Every time you see him, he's got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away…and he shows up with the biggest mask I've ever seen."

Biden's response was to make confident and scientifically dubious assertions about the efficacy of face coverings.

"Masks make a big difference," the former vice president said. "His own head of the CDC said…if everybody wore a mask and social-distanced between now and January, we'd probably save up to 100,000 lives." When Trump shot back that "they've also said the opposite," the former vice president snapped: "No serious person has said the opposite. No serious person."

In fact, top COVID adviser Anthony Fauci had famously said in March that "there's no reason to be walking around with a mask," and a few days before that then–Surgeon General Jerome Adams also famously tweeted that "they are NOT effective." But the real problem with Biden's statement was his—and the media's—uncritical parroting of CDC Director Redfield's facially ludicrous claims about the preventative potency of cloth.

"These face masks are the most important, powerful public health tool we have," Redfield told a Senate subcommittee two weeks before the debate. "I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine." Emphasis mine, to remind you that 2020 actually happened.

For those lonely few in public life, such as Reason's Jacob Sullum, who take intellectual rigor seriously, public health hyperbole of this type is easily discoverable in real time as being unsupported by available research. But for elites whose default is to snort derisively in the general direction of Trump, the then-president's occasionally sensible skepticism was yet another reason to declare that he was untenably against The Science.

"Trump Scorns His Own Scientists Over Virus Data," was the New York Times headline after the president asserted—again, accurately—that Redfield had "made a mistake" when equating masks with vaccines. The first three paragraphs of that Times article positively drip with the kind of unearned condescension and one-sided appeals to authority that marred so much of early journalism about COVID:

President Trump on Wednesday rejected the professional scientific conclusions of his own government about the prospects for a widely available coronavirus vaccine and the effectiveness of masks in curbing the spread of the virus as the death toll in the United States from the disease neared 200,000.

In a remarkable display even for him, Mr. Trump publicly slapped down Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as the president promised that a vaccine could be available in weeks and go "immediately" to the general public while diminishing the usefulness of masks despite evidence to the contrary.

The president's comments put him at odds with the C.D.C., the world's premier public health agency, over the course of a pandemic that he keeps insisting is "rounding the corner" to an end. Mr. Trump lashed out just hours after Dr. Redfield told a Senate committee that a vaccine would not be widely available until the middle of next year and that masks were so vital in fighting the disease caused by the coronavirus, Covid-19, that they may even more important than a vaccine.

The political class in the United States erred massively on the side of ostentatious and intrusive COVID mitigation strategies that the rest of the world had mostly abandoned by the beginning of 2021. Biden's CDC recommended universal congregate-setting masking—like, for two-year-olds—well into 2022, based on the flimsiest of evidence. He imposed vaccine mandates, inaccurately characterized the disease as a "pandemic of the unvaccinated," and accused social media companies of "killing people." It's honestly not good for your blood pressure to remember any of this.

The warning signs were right there, hiding in plain sight, in last cycle's first presidential debate. Journalists and commentators still sputtering with disbelief that 46 percent of the country keeps voting for Trump may want to check out how their own bullying groupthink played into those voters' perceptions, loyalties, and motivations.

But as is customary especially with Trump but also with Biden, it's hard to focus on any substance when the style is so gross. In an election (still an agonizing 19 weeks away) potentially decided by "double haters," Thursday night's most indelible effect may be the buzzkill voter realization that we're doomed to live through the horrors of 2020 all over again. Welcome to the 2024 presidential campaign.