Taking Credit Where It Is Not at All Due: Vaccines
by Neil H. Buchanan
If we learned nothing else from Donald Trump's four excruciating years occupying the White House, it is that he refuses to own anything bad and tries to take credit for everything good. As is so often the case with Trump, this is both "what all politicians do" and not at all like that. In a world of shameless self-promoters, he stands alone in his insistence on saying with a straight face that he alone can fix things -- and that it is everyone else's fault when he fails to do so.
The latest example of this is Trump's Tweet-substitute statement insisting that he receive all of the credit for the existence of COVID vaccines. Perhaps the best headline on this story was from The Independent: "Trump issues statement trying to take credit for 'China virus' vaccine: 'I hope everyone remembers.'" (Of course he uses a racist framing. Because Trump.) The sub-headline helpfully adds: "Ex-president claimed that if it was not for him Americans may not have got shots for five years – if ever."
Of course, this is not new. (And I will fight the urge to discuss Trump's years of feeding the anti-vaxxer insanity.) As I discussed in a Dorf on Law column shortly after Trump lost the 2020 election, Trump even then was making the deranged claim that "[i]f you had a different administration with different people, what we’ve done would have taken, in my opinion, three, four, five years, and it would have been in the FDA forever." (The link to that statement has disappeared from WhiteHouse.gov.)
In some ways, there is not much new to say here, but because this is a Friday, and because Trump and the Republicans will surely be pushing this line for the next three, four, five years, or maybe forever, it seems worth writing down a few responses to this claim. Bottom line: Trump deserves exactly zero credit for the existence of the lifesaving -- indeed, life-changing -- vaccines.
Again, we expect politicians to claim that they have done good things. And because presidents have always been given both too much credit and too much blame, it has become commonplace for people to form opinions about presidents simply because something "happened on his watch." How carefully or actively a president is watching, however, is hardly obvious. And even when it is, determining cause and effect can be difficult at best.
Or not. President Jimmy Carter, for example, was blamed for the 1980 mini-recession, even though that was clearly and completely caused by then-Chair of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker. Carter's sober attempts to confront the reality that Volcker had created were then portrayed as being insufficiently optimistic, with the press and pundits even settling on the claim that he gave a "malaise speech," no matter that he did not use that word.
Carter, however, could at least be said to bear some significant responsibility for Volcker's actions, because it was Carter who had nominated Volcker to the position that Volcker used to create a recession. No one predicted that Volcker would be so willing to put a complete choke-hold on the economy, and Carter was left trying to deal with the fallout from an economic disaster that had nothing to do with his own policies. (The underlying problems were mostly tied to oil prices, which were set by our longtime best buds in Saudi Arabia.) There were no good options, but Volcker chose arguably the most risky and extreme approach.
And for what it might be worth, real economic growth "on Carter's watch" was higher than under Truman, Eisenhower, Ford, both Bushes, Obama, and Trump. It was barely below Nixon and Reagan, only lagging Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton in any significant way, among post-WWII presidents. Ronald Reagan, meanwhile, benefited from the inevitable growth that followed the Volcker recessions (a deeper 1982 one was V-shaped), but Reagan has been lionized for the non-connection between "supply-side tax cuts" and what turned out to be not particularly impressive economic performance. "Hey, the Fed stopped killing the economy, and I was there when a recovery happened. I'm a freakin' economic genius!!"
Again, that is unfair -- unjust blame for Carter, unmerited praise for Reagan -- but at least familiar. Once a president is in office, he (or someday she) will be assumed to have magical powers. When there is a Madam President, of course, we should also expect an extreme imbalance, with too much blame for bad things and virtually no credit for good things.
As I briefly mentioned in that November 2020 Dorf on Law column (only a few paragraphs of which were devoted to Trump's vaccine credit-hogging), there is another version of the political blame-game, this one epitomized by former Vice President Al Gore's never-made claim to have "invented the internet." What Gore actually said is that he "took the initiative in creating the internet," which indeed was created in large part by Congress passing laws that funded and otherwise led to the creation of the internet.
A 2014 article in Vox put it this way: "But the men who did invent the internet, TCP/IP designers Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf, wrote in Gore’s defense in 2000. They argue that Gore was 'the first political leader to recognize the importance of the internet and to promote and support its development.'" If not a but/for cause of the creation of the internet, Gore was at the very least intimately involved for years in tech issues, providing leadership that certainly appears to have been a necessary condition for the internet to come into existence as quickly as it did.
In other words, the internet did not just happen to come into existence while Gore was in public office, or even while he was chair of a key Senate committee. His actions made a difference, and there is good reason to believe that others would not have stepped into the void, had Gore devoted his efforts to other matters.
But Trump? Here is the best case that he deserves credit for anti-COVID vaccines: (1) The federal government supported the development of vaccines, (2) Previous vaccines have taken longer to develop than the COVID vaccines, and (3) Trump forced the FDA to move faster than usual.
The first point is merely an "on my watch" argument, and it is an especially weak version of that argument for two reasons. First, Trump lied by claiming that the Pfizer vaccine was created with government money. It simply is not true that Pfizer used government money to develop the vaccine. Second, Trump's comically named Operation Warp Speed was simply a label slapped on the effort to create a vaccine, an effort that would have been undertaken even if Trump had said nothing about it.
That is, not only is it true that any other president would have done at least as much as Trump did to create a vaccine on their watch, but the government even under Trump would have done the same thing whether he asked anyone to do it or not. It would have been simply irresponsible if the CDC and every other relevant agency had not responded to the greatest public health crisis in a century with everything at their disposal.
The only way that Trump could have affected the process, in fact, was to impede it. Should we give him credit at least for not preventing the public health authorities, in partnership with some private companies, from doing their jobs? After all, he affirmatively made matters worse when it came to wearing masks and social distancing, and he refused to take responsibility to coordinate the responses among the states -- that is, to act like the leader of the federal government. He also failed to use essential powers under available laws to increase production of personal protective equipment.
Does Trump, then, get credit for not making things even worse? Sure, but only if we judge him by the rest of his track record. He was hoping for a magic bullet in the form of a virus, so he fought his natural urge to mess things up. Good on him!
Point (2) above -- "Previous vaccines have taken longer to develop than the COVID vaccines" -- is even easier to knock down. Short answer: What does that prove? Every disease is different, and science does not proceed on a schedule. We are fortunate indeed that scientists found the keys to fighting this virus so quickly, but that has nothing to do with Operation Warp Speed or anything else. We threw everything available at the problem, and we got lucky that it paid off at all, much less that it happened as quickly as it did. No evidence exists that anything the government did on Trump's watch sped things up.
The easiest way to understand what Trump is up to is to think about what he would say if a vaccine had not been created until, say, next winter. Even then -- and even if in the interim Biden had tripled the resources dedicated to vaccines -- Trump would claim that he should receive credit, because the "all-important first steps were taken under me, your favorite president."
Yes, we are all happy that these vaccines did not take as long to develop as other vaccines. Trump, however, had nothing at all to do with that, and he would try to take credit under any timeline. The speed argument, then, is nothing more than a tarted up on-my-watch argument.
When I came up with (3) above -- "Trump forced the FDA to move faster than usual." -- I actually had to bend over backward even to find a third argument that Trump's defenders might use. I took it from Trump's Fall statement, which included the claim that any vaccine "would have been in the FDA forever." Apparently, he is claiming that the FDA would have sat on the vaccine were it not for Trump coming in and knocking sense into people.
By now, it should surprise no one that this is yet another version of the on-my-watch argument -- Seriously, would President Hillary Clinton have said, "Hey, FDA, take all the time you need. No rush."? -- but this one actually points to something for which Trump genuinely deserves affirmative blame. To the extent that Trump, noting that regulatory approval is also necessary, is saying that there is something important beyond the first step of actually inventing effective vaccines, we also need to know what happens next.
Trump ridiculously over-promised delivery of the vaccines, claiming that there would be hundreds of millions of doses delivered by December 31, 2020, but delivering only a fraction of that. And that is not mere happenstance. Trump's insistence on not doing anything so difficult as actually leading (working with people and coordinating efforts on multiple levels) left state governors frantically trying to figure things out on their own -- just as they had had to do with PPE earlier in the crisis, and for the same reason.
Fifty-one days into his presidency, Joe Biden and his team are still trying to straighten things out. Virtually everyone reading this column surely has a story or ten about friends in other states who have already been vaccinated while our own states are simply in wait-and-see mode. Or vice versa, if you are lucky enough to live in a state with a government that has somehow managed to put together supplies and distribution with no coordination across other states, regions, or the federal government.
Trump's entire life, and certainly his political career, was built around asserting that he would cause some great thing to happen, without providing a means to do so -- or even an argument as to how it would happen. He was going to replace the Affordable Care Act with something fantastic that covered everyone and saved trillions of dollars. He was going to fix the nation's infrastructure. He was going to pay down the national debt (a truly bad idea, but he thought that it was a good one). He would make Mexico pay for his border wall. And on and on.
When it came to the coronavirus pandemic, Trump simply grabbed onto the thing that sounded the easiest. Early on, he asked with hope in his voice whether existing flu vaccines would do the trick, making it unnecessary even to wait for scientists to create a new one. No dice. Even when his next-best wish was granted, he had no idea what to do, and his instinct was simply to declare victory.
We will all benefit from the historically rapid invention of anti-COVID vaccines. Trump does not get credit for it, nor does Biden or anyone else. Our government spent decades building up and supporting a scientific community that came through for all of us, yet again. For all those things that Trump actually could have improved, he delivered chaos.
Trump's statement ended: "I hope everyone remembers." I think we will.
[Update: Just a few minutes ago, I was allowed to schedule my first vaccine shot.]