Frame the questions, make the candidates really debate

A few years after my arrival as a Washington reporter, it finally happened: the president of the United States called on me at a White House press conference in the East Room. Live on national television, the Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan, pointed at me and bade me to proceed.

So I did. I asked him a question. And he was stumped.

Reagan was befuddled, but not because the question was complex or obscure or confusing or clever. He was thrown off because I broke what appeared to be an unwritten rule — I asked a follow-up question.

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My follow-up was journalistic heresy, in that I was tacitly acknowledging a competitor's question. Callow as I was, I believed in the idea of a full answer, regardless of custom. Alas, the president could not answer: He had used his prepared messaging the first time and was at a loss on a response.

I had discovered the key. From then on, whether it was at the White House, the Pentagon, Capitol Hill or in the field, the follow-up was the key to getting the best possible shot at a real response. It almost always worked.

And it can work to improve the debates. Neil Cavuto, Maria Bartiromo and Gerard Baker did a variation of the follow-up in the last GOP debate by returning to their original question and trying to elicit a relevant response from candidates intent on eluding. In the last Democratic debate, moderator John Dickerson did the same.

Yet candidates still had the upper hand to avoid meaningful responses. Thus, it is time to get some grist for the mill.

Here are three heretical ways to shake things up.

First way. Put all remaining GOP names in a Lincolnesque stovepipe hat. Pull names one at a time to randomly arrange three debates with similar number of candidates each.

Imagine the consternation and thus opportunities with a lower-tier candidate riddling questions at a higher-tier candidate. They may have good ideas and they may do what others have not done: ask tough questions of each other.

In fact, that is part of this idea. Each candidate, in turn, will pull a name from their grouping. That is whom they have to ask one pointed question. The reporters will follow up.

This idea, of course, flies in the face of what is considered standard presidential debate rules in the general election. To go Lincoln Chafee on you, it is general election debate Rule 5e, which says, "The candidates may not ask each other direct questions during any of the ... debates." Makes the idea even more delicious.

The panel of reporters will have a horn, a la Harpo Marx, to honk if the question is lame or lousy. They will keep honking until a good question is asked.

Second way. For the next Republican debate, set aside time where all get questioned by Democratic dropouts former Sens. Jim Webb (Va.) and Chafee (R.I.). Likewise, at the next Democratic debate, guest questioners would be Govs. Bobby Jindal (La.) and Scott Walker (Wis.) and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. (For a twist, have Perry quiz Texas Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz: 'Of course' it's not appropriate to ask China to investigate Bidens Sunday Show Preview: Trump's allies and administration defend decision on Syria O'Rourke raises .5 million in third quarter MORE to name the five federal agencies he is going to close.)

Finally, the third way. Panel reporters bring charts of four things each candidate has said that are false, unclear, contradictory or a flip-flop and then lay out the facts. This is going in-your-face by the journalists, but it is also doing their job.

When candidates maintain that they were taken out of context, direct quotes are read and the question is repeated.

This was part of what worked for the question to Reagan. My follow-up quoted directly what he said about 14 minutes earlier in the press conference. Thus, there was no opportunity for him to say he was taken out of context or misquoted.

Debates are about many things, including clear ideas and words spoken. Hold them accountable. Make the questions tough and follow them up.

Finally, if those three fail and there is a preference for more theater and — if possible — even less substance, let's fully ignore general election debate rule Rule 9c(iv), which specifies that "Each candidate may move about in a pre-designated area, as proposed by the Commission and approved by each campaign, and may not leave that area while the debate is underway. The pre-designated areas of the candidates may not overlap."

A little violation of personal space may winnow the field more quickly and more interestingly. After all, as President Reagan once said, "When you can't make them see the light, make them feel the heat."

Squitieri is an award-winning reporter and communications veteran and an adjunct professor at American University and Washington and Jefferson College.