09/19/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Democrats Let McCain Off Hook on "Cone of Silence"

I was startled at Sen. McCain's formidable presentation at the Saddleback College debate because he seemed so obviously...prepared. It turns out that McCain was not sequestered in a "cone of silence" but was in a automobile where he could well have been... prepared.

It began to be a huge issue, raised by Larry King and alleged sources in the Obama headquarters.

But given an opening to raise serious questions about McCain, Democratic spokespersons like Sen. Claire McCaskill and others dismissed it as a non-story, thus making it a non-story. Instead they put themselves on the defensive by nuanced explanations of Obama's nuanced answers to Pastor Rick Warren's questions.

This was a time to raise questions, not go meek. If McCain was indeed in an automobile, if he was not in a "cone of silence", how will we ever know whether he cheated, perhaps with the help of staff? Pastor Warren's answer was "I have to take him at his word." That is not acceptable. Again and again in recent years, politicians of both parties have paraded before cameras to give us their "word" that they have not lied and cheated -- usually on sexual matters -- only to be exposed as lying about their lies.

This election will be settled more on character questions than policy issues, and McCain is especially vulnerable on questions of personal veracity. But if Democrats, including Obama, keep on lauding him as a war hero, a maverick and a straight-shooter, they are contributing to just those qualities Americans are looking for in a president.

The Saddleback debate was a crucial opening to establish doubt about McCain and Republican/Rove campaign tactics. Defensive Democrats lacked the toughness to show that McCain was not sequestered from beginning to end of the Obama portion of the debate. Republicans, looking for every opportunity to cast doubts on Obama's character, would never have let that opportunity pass.