The Plan

Broadcast and cable networks, including Fox News and ABC, will simulcast CNN’s presidential debate on June 27, 2024. It is the first of two planned face-offs between President Biden and former President Trump. Since 1988 presidential debates were organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates. But this year is different. The campaigns for the presumptive 2024 nominees bypassed the commission this year and agreed to two debates produced by individual networks. The first will be moderated by CNN anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash at the network’s Atlanta studio, while ABC will produce and carry the second event on Sept. 10. The running mates — Vice President Kamala Harris and Trump’s to-be-determined VEEP pick — are expected to meet on CBS.

The Novelty

It will be novel for many reasons. It will be the first debate between a current and a former U.S. president. It will be the first featuring a convicted felon. It will be the first conducted before either major party has formally picked a nominee. And maybe most importantly, it harkens to an earlier time in presidential campaign politics when debates were neither typical nor expected, and when they occurred, they did so to serve specific needs of the candidates, rather than as a form of public service.[1]

The Good Ole Days

The first televised presidential debate was between Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960, and it seemed like a good gamble for both campaigns. Both candidates were articulate, well-informed, and sharp on their feet, and the election seemed to be a close one. Both had reason to believe that a debate could give them the edge they needed to win the contest. The general belief that Nixon had looked bad on TV and that this might have cost him the election is probably at least part of the reason he had no interest in debating when he ran again in 1968.[2] But these are not the good ole days, nor are they remotely predictable this year.

The Ethics of Debating – Psychiatry and the Goldwater Rule

The debate, like other parts of the campaign, will be as divisive as the run up to Thursday has been. Here are three recent examples of how “divisive” this may be: (1) “That Haley would be on the ticket would compensate for Trump’s divisive personality, which has turned reliable conservatives way from him.”[3] (2) “Now, immigration is a more divisive issue and executives on the left are less willing to dive into politics.”[4] (3) “Policy failures often left pandemic decision-makers with blunt, divisive, binary options — open up or shut down, protect health or protect jobs, get vaccinated or be shut out.”[5]

Psychiatry at the Podium

Although revealed medical records show no evidence of psychiatric symptoms, there has been widespread psychopathological supposition about both these candidates, influenced by their age profiles and polarized political trends. Continuing into 2024 and the Republican primaries, this discourse could be heightened by growing disinformation generated by digital technologies and artificial intelligence (AI).[6]

Amidst this complex and sensitive landscape, psychiatrists may face significant challenges, reigniting contentious debates about commentary on public figures and impinging upon the American Psychiatric Association’s Goldwater Rule.[7] It prohibits APA member-psychiatrists from discussing the mental health of individuals without assessment or consent. That means we might hear from talking heads about the debate but not from someone who might know the psychiatric displays on and off the stage.

The Goldwater Rule

Critics contend that the Goldwater Rule restricts free expression, enabling experts from allied fields (e.g., psychologists or neurologists), non-US psychiatrists, or laypeople to disproportionately sway public agendas.[8] Others highlight a lack of enforcement mechanisms and the anachronisms of the Goldwater Rule for modern online platforms. Both may require nuanced consideration given the ethical implications of digitally generated disinformation.

The Complexities of Age and Ethics

The debate on stage will generate a nation-wide debate off stage because tens of thousands of voters might not focus  on economic metrics. They might focus on Biden’s age and Trump’s indictments. And the debate might veer off into Trump’s mental wellbeing. The words “unhinged” and “untruthful” might drown out a gentlemanly bate and rebate. A recent Quinnipiac poll reported only 34% of voters said that Biden has the mental fitness to serve a second term. And only 29% said Trump was ethical, compared to 49% who said so that about Trump.[9]

The ”ethics” of presidential debates in 2020 was covered in my blog #216 four years ago. This is not a redo because of Biden’s age or Trump’s criminality; both are true, evident and relevant. I told readers then to remember that the questions asked in a debate come from a written document. That means they were carefully prepared by competent people. They will be well thought out, sensitive, inquiring, and fair. But in 2020 the answers were often taunts, grunts, and wave offs by Trump. Biden stared in disbelief at Trump’s antics. There was zero entertainment value.

The Donkey and His Purchaser

This debate will be watched by many assessing their votes. Some will judge the candidates by the company they keep.  The Fulcrum reminded us about Aesop’s fable called The Donkey and His Purchaser. “A man wished to purchase a donkey and decided to give the animal a trial to see how it would fit with him herd. He took the donkey home and put it in the field with the other donkeys. Quickly the donkey on trial joined the laziest and greediest donkey. Seeing who the new donkey chose to spend time with, the man returned the donkey back to its owner because he knew it would also become lazy and greedy. The moral of the story: A man is known by the company he keeps.”[10] Another witty piece from the Bible might be on the mind of debate watchers given the news that Trump is  hawking his own bibles for $59.99. He calls it the USA Bible.[11]

Ethically Suspect

From an ethical perspective, most presidential debates have been ethically suspect. Sadly, there is little truth in presidential debates. Truth in debates always brings out doubt and is riddled with downright lies. Liars cover up truth with metaphorical cloth woven by spiders. The liar sins a yarn,  embroiders it with false details and produces the inert tissue of lies. We’ve all heard the groans—X lies like an auctioneer. Y lies like a tooth-drawer. My favorite is he lies like a hedgehog rolled up the wrong way, tormenting himself with prickles. What Trump says in this debate won’t matter in MAGA land. They believe what he says because he tells them to. If he believes it, so do they. 

Do’s, Dont’s and Never Minds

Ethical debate is based on principles, as in principled debaters. If both sides debate fairly, truthfully, and respectfully, the debate will be worth the effort, at the podium and out in the virtual audience. If both debaters present ideas honestly, their positions will be judged accordingly. Both debaters must be considerate of the opposing viewpoint. A debate, especially a presidential debate should never be about just winning the debate. It should be about informing voters of high-level policy positions that will positively affect voters over the next four years.

Intellectual honesty should be the core of both sides of the debate. If both are intellectually honest, they will acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses on both sides of the platform.

Treat your opponent with respect: Use polite language and don’t attack your opponent or comment about their appearance, personality, or style.

Both positions should provide actual, identifiable, provable evidence. Evidence must be correct, verifiable, and from reputable sources.  

Acting Presidential

The most important debate issue in a presidential debate is acting “presidential.” This means both participants should look reputable, be capable of holding presidential office, taking care to exercise authority constitutionally, democratically, and in strict accordance with Article II of the United States Constitution. In a presidential election debate both participates should, at the very least, seem to able and understand the core job of any U.S. Pretendent: Faithfully executing the office of President by preserving, protecting, and defending the Constitution and avoiding any tendency toward authoritarianism, totalitarianism, dictatorship, autocratic, oligarchic, political pluralism, insurgency, criminality, bad taste, despotism, tyranny, absolutism, fascism, suppression, subjugation,  domination, despotism, autarchy, or monocracy.   

There should be no adverse comments about appearance, personality, or style. They should understand and abide by the etiquette of presidential debates. Neither side should commit ad hominem by attaching his opponent’s character or name calling. Since the 1950s, the rules of etiquette have been simultaneously followed, ignored, and blistered. Here are the basics of debate etiquette:  

  1. Use proper greetings—smile and say hello.
  2. Say “please” and “thank you.”
  3. Be mindful of your language, no cussing or disparaging.
  4. Respect personal space.
  5. Dress appropriately.
  6. Be a good listener.
  7. Don’t but in.
  8. Practice good communication by using clear and concise language.
  9. Be mindful of your non-verbal communication, such as body language.
  10. And, remember that etiquette is about showing respect for your opponent, making him feel comfortable, and being polite and considerate to the debate hosts.[12]  

Flaws, Foibles, Kinks and Snags.

We have a history of presidential debate flaws, mistakes, dumb comments, and clashes. “Al Gore’s melodramatic sighs, George H.W. Bush’s unwise glance at his watch, a day’s growth on Richard Nixon’s chin and Donald Trump’s bulk looming over Hillary Clinton remain iconic years after the policy clashes in those debates have been forgotten.”[13]

This year’s presidential debate is sui generis. “For the first time in American history, two presidents will stand side-by-side on a debate stage with their legacies exposed for everyone to judge. . . The meeting of incumbents is one most voters would have preferred to avoid. And so far, their fears seem to be realized. The tied race means two candidates either side of eighty are struggling to show they’ve got the policies to fix the nation’s problems. And neither so far has shown the vision to conjure a road map to the future that millions of Americans will inhabit long after both are gone.”[14]

“How much any presidential debate matters to the outcome in November is a matter of conjecture. U.S. history is replete with debates that seemed in the heat of the moment to have changed the tide but ultimately didn’t. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama each famously flopped in their first debates when they sought reelection. Both men then went on to resounding victories.”[15]

This presidential debate will generate fodder for the planet’s social media craze. Every faux  pas will go viral. Equally undesirable is the certainty that deceptively edited videos will be circulate  worldwide by nay sayers and nay doers everywhere. And then there is the 21st century plague of “low-information voters.” No one knows how many low or mis information voters are ignoring  politics this year.

Polls, Guesses & Speculations

And  of course, there are polls to factor into the other guesses and speculations about this year’s presidential debates. “FiveThirtyEight, recently reported that for the first time this year Biden leads Trump in its average of national polls. The margin is slight, 40.7 percent to 40.4 percent, with Kennedy drawing nearly 10 percent support. All the standard caveats apply about margins of error and the fact that presidents aren’t chosen in a national vote but in the aggregation of votes in fifty states and one district.”[16]

This year will undoubtedly have an overflow of spin doctors. They will be overjoyed because they can selectively edit clips by the right to make Biden seem dazed and confused or by the left to show Trump as a bigot and a bully.[17]

Presidential debates may not matter in this age of AI, election deniers, continuous indictments, criminal convictions, and the malaise by many Americans critical of politicians and skeptical of government. Many would prefer younger candidates. Last year, nearly two-thirds of Americans (65%) say they always or often feel exhausted when thinking about politics, while 55% feel angry. Just 10% say they always or often feel hopeful about politics, and even fewer (4%) are excited.[18]

Right, Wrong, Public Interest and Private Gain

As always, my focus is on the ethics of the thing, more than on the thing itself. Four years ago, when that year’s presidential debate was looming, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics answered whether ethics mattered in elections. “Upon taking office, every public servant, elected or appointed, enters into a covenant with the people: that the officeholder will not use her or his position for personal gain. . . A basic grasp of right and wrong coupled with a firm commitment to the public interest can help keep public officials on the right track.” [19]

That is the right test. But the debates this year are not likely to answer the question. A basic grasp of right and wrong is best tested in  an examination of past conduct, in both civil and criminal contexts. Bidin is eighty-one years old. Trump is a convicted criminal. If the Markkula Center is right,  the ethical needle is high at eighty-one and low  at using the position for personal gain.


[2] Ibid.

[3] Jeongyoon Han, NPR, 6 June 2024

[4] Tribune News Service, The Mercury News, 6 June 2024

[5] Asa Hutchinson, STAT, 6 June 2024


[7] Moffic H.S. 2022. Psychiatrists and the 2024 presidential race. [Google Scholar]  

[8] Smith A., Hachen S., van Wijnkoop M., Schiltz K., Falkai P., Liebrenz M. The Goldwater rule at 50 and its relevance in Europe: examining the positions of national psychiatric association members of the European psychiatric association. Eur Psychiatry. 2023;66:e34. doi: 10.1192/j.eurpsy.2023.22. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]  












Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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