MATTHEWS: Pandemic takes center stage in GOP presidential race

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition's fall banquet, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Bryon Houlgrave)

As I referenced in my last column, there has been an uptick in COVID-19 cases across the country in recent weeks, which means we’re going to hear a lot more reports on the wearing of masks, recommendations on vaccines, and possible lockdown-related measures some parts of the country may either be considering or already implementing. 

Along with that has come the renewed focus on how the pandemic was managed at the state and national levels at its start and its height, and some very pointed jabs on this issue have been thrown between former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, both of whom are running for the Republican presidential nomination. 

For instance, in an interview with Megyn Kelly last week, Trump without evidence alleged that DeSantis locked down Florida “for a lot longer” than the month his 30-day stay-at-home order, issued at the end of March 2020, was entirely in effect. 

Trump also reacted to criticism from the DeSantis camp that he awarded a presidential commendation to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is not liked at all by most Republicans, by claiming he didn’t know who gave it to Fauci. 

DeSantis responded accordingly by pointing to Trump’s previous praise of Fauci and how Trump used to talk about the Florida governor’s “spectacular” handling of the COVID outbreak in the Sunshine State compared to how he has changed his tune on it since DeSantis declared his presidential candidacy. 

When the subject of COVID-19 is brought up, Trump often complains about the perception of his management of the pandemic. 

“I never got, I think, the credit that I deserve on COVID,” Trump said during that same interview. 

More recently, Trump asserted that his coronavirus task force’s response was “great … as good as it could be considering nobody knew what it was.” 

What that says to some people, including DeSantis, is that Trump wouldn’t handle things much differently in the event another pandemic emerged, something the Florida governor has suggested is very concerning considering the mistakes that were made in 2020 under Trump’s watch, some of which were made worse after Joe Biden took office. 

“He seems to be saying he would do the same thing all over again,” DeSantis said during a discussion of pandemic management styles. 

In a radio interview last week with Fox News’ Jimmy Failla, DeSantis pointed out that Trump is “basically saying he did everything right, and I think that means you should understand he would do the same thing all over again if put in that position. And that would be disastrous for our country.” 

Though this debate is an extremely important one to have among all GOP presidential candidates, Trump has said that he won’t attend any of the GOP debates because he thinks his poll lead makes it pointless. Because of that, the discussions on this topic between the two top contenders must play out in other ways in the public sphere. 

With that in mind, it’s crucial that voters pay close attention to what the candidates say on this issue, read between the lines, and do the research to determine if what they’re claiming is on the up and up. 

If it’s not, the next thing those people need to do is to ask themselves why, because for many Republican voters, this is one of those line-in-the-sand type issues where the wrong answers on the critical components will undoubtedly be deal-breakers, as they should be. 

North Carolina native Stacey Matthews has also written under the pseudonym Sister Toldjah and is a media analyst and regular contributor to RedState and Legal Insurrection.