WASHINGTON — Joe Biden warned of a “dark winter,” while President Trump promised that the coronavirus is “going away.” Their sharply divergent views on the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 220,000 Americans, opened the final debate between the two presidential candidates.
Unlike their contentious first debate, Thursday’s encounter featured a series of substantive policy discussions, in part because the candidates’ ability to interrupt and grandstand was vitiated by an ingenious new feature: a mute button.
That allowed both Trump and Biden to articulate their differences on the coronavirus, the topic with which moderator Kristen Welker of NBC opened the debate, alluding to the “dangerous new phase” of the pandemic that could be coming with the colder weather.
In particular, the two men differed sharply on whether a new round of lockdowns could be necessary in the coming weeks and months, when most public health experts believe the infection rate will increase.
Despite that, Trump rejected the notion of new lockdowns of the kind that most states imposed last spring. His plan could be summarized in a single word: vaccine. As he has said on many other occasions, the president said that a coronavirus vaccine would be available soon, obviating the need for lockdowns and other uncomfortable measures.
“We’re learning to live with it,” Trump said of the coronavirus. “We have no choice.” He then proceeded to mock Biden for abiding by stay-at-home orders for much of the spring.
“We have to recover,” Trump went on to say. “We can’t close up our nation,” or, he warned, “you’re not going to have a nation.” As he has many times before, Trump said that “99 percent” of all people infected with the coronavirus recovered. That is not true.
Steeped in a philosophy of relentless optimism about his own prospects, Trump has continued to discount evidence that suggests his approach to the coronavirus has failed.
President Donald Trump and Joe Biden during the final Presidential Debate in Nashville, Tenn., on Thursday. (Mike Segar/Reuters (2).
That left Biden to articulate a more realistic vision of things to come, even if that put him in the discomfiting position of having to tell prospective voters things they probably did not want to hear.
“Learning to live with it? Come on. We’re dying with it,” Biden said. He has previously said that, if necessary, he would institute a new round of lockdowns. “I would shut it down,” he said in August. “I would listen to the scientists.”
He did not put the matter quite so bluntly on Thursday night, but he did make clear that, if elected president, he would exercise more control over how the nation manages the pandemic. Trump has largely left the matter to states while also undermining and mocking safety guidelines pertaining to mask mandates and social distancing.
“I’m going to shut down the virus, not the country,” Biden said. He blamed Trump’s “ineptitude” for pandemic-related lockdowns, though it is not clear that another tactic was available when the pandemic first arrived in the United States.
Asked flatly by Welker whether he was in favor of new lockdowns, Biden said that “you need standards.” He then explained that communities that saw increased rates of viral spread could face new restrictions, referencing closures of bars and restaurants, as well as social distancing.
“All he does is talk about shutdowns,” Trump retorted. He played on pandemic fatigue, a genuine phenomenon that is as intractable as the pandemic itself. “We have to open our country,” he said. “We’re not going to have a country,” he warned. “You can’t do this.”
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