Washington Post pundit Richard Cohen says John Edwards and Barack Obama are liars. The first sentence of his first column of 2008 reads: “John Edwards lied about the cost of his haircuts.” Cohen presents no evidence for this comically ridiculous accusation and does not refer to it again in the rest of the column. But since I’d never heard it before, I e-mailed Cohen to ask him to substantiate it. I received no reply. When it comes to calling John Edwards a liar in the Post, evidence is apparently unnecessary.

As for Obama, Cohen writes that his “lie or fib or misstatement–call it what you want” is the following: “more young black men are in prison than in college.” Here, Cohen cites the Post’s “lonesome but formidable truth squad, Michael Dobbs,” who, he says, “brought this to the attention of the Obama campaign” but “got the brushoff.” One reason Dobbs might have been brushed off is that Obama was telling the truth. Mark Kleiman, who teaches courses on crime control and drug policy at UCLA and ran the policy shop in the criminal division of the Justice Department under Ronald Reagan, explains that according to US Census figures, 810,000 black males are behind bars at any one time in this country, while only 410,000 are enrolled in four-year colleges or graduate school. In order to disprove Obama’s contention, it is necessary, Kleiman explains, to include every black male taking a course at almost any post-secondary educational institution. Otherwise, Cohen and Dobbs are the liars. Kleiman says he contacted Cohen and Dobbs but got the brushoff.

I contacted Dobbs as well, this time about Edwards. I asked him for evidence for his insistence–also made on the Post‘s front page–that when Edwards claimed that NAFTA has cost Americans “millions of jobs,” this was “demonstrably false,” an assertion Dobbs did not bother to support anywhere in the article. Dobbs ignored my request, but searching for evidence myself I found his argument on his Washington Post “factchecker” page. There’s an argument there, sure, but on the Economic Policy Institute’s website, I also found figures supporting the claim that NAFTA has displaced approximately a million jobs. What’s more, I found a video on YouTube in which Edwards can be seen to claim that “NAFTA, CAFTA and other trade agreements cost us millions of jobs.” So what Dobbs uses to paint Edwards as a liar is really nothing more than Edwards saying “millions” when he meant “about a million” or forgetting to add “CAFTA and other trade agreements” when discussing the issue.

What is most interesting here is the confidence enjoyed by these two Washington Post writers as they smear Democratic candidates on the basis of nitpicky or nonexistent evidence. After all, this is the same paper that regularly relays George W. Bush’s lies with uncritical, near-stenographic accuracy. Yet Obama and Edwards are called liars when they tell the truth.

This happens, I would submit, because to imply that institutional racism continues to rule the American justice system, per Obama, or that so-called free-trade agreements destroy more working-class jobs than they create, per Edwards, is beyond the parameters of responsible dialogue inside the cozy village I like to call “Quinn-Broderville,” where the Post is Chief Enforcement Officer. While Cohen and Dobbs also dealt with alleged Republican falsehoods, Cohen at least generously tipped his hand by explaining that John McCain’s easily disproven claim that the Constitution established the United States as a “Christian nation” did not bother him so much because “I know McCain, and I know his character.”

It is just a coincidence that the Cohen and Dobbs pieces were published around the time the New York Times announced its decision to offer a spot on its op-ed page to William Kristol, but it is a useful one nevertheless. According to the Alice-in-Wonderland ideological rules of the Washington punditocracy, having supported the catastrophic war in Iraq demonstrates your good judgment and overall reliability, while opposing job-displacing, environment-destroying trade agreements paints you as a dangerous radical.

While it is certainly possible that Times readers would benefit from a second conservative columnist alongside Kristol’s onetime protégé David Brooks, the paper insults its readers, and itself, by picking one with a long record not only of putting the interests of the conservative movement ahead of the truth but of impugning the honesty, integrity and patriotism of anyone who refuses to join his jihad. Back in the Fantasy Island days of Mission Accomplished, Kristol thundered in McCarthyite terms against the “New York Times editorial page” along with anyone who dared disagree with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their neocon cheerleaders. “These liberals–better, leftists,” he roared, “hate George W. Bush so much they can barely bring themselves to hope America wins the war…. They hate Don Rumsfeld so much they can’t bear to see his military strategy vindicated. They hate John Ashcroft so much they relish the thought of his Justice Department flubbing the war on terrorism. They hate conservatives with a passion that seems to burn brighter than their love of America.”

Though Richard Cohen also supported the Iraq War, many issues undoubtedly separate the longtime Post “liberal” from the Times‘s newest neocon. And Michael Dobbs would presumably insist that his journalism is largely free from ideology of any kind. But each operates within the well-defined borders of the assumptions of Quinn-Broderville. And this means that when you call liberals names and question their honesty and patriotism, you may do so with impunity and without evidence. The “lesson,” as Ann Coulter explained in a moment of unprecedented cogency, “is it’s really not that scary to attack liberals.”