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One of the most distressing aspects of the recent terror warnings are the accusations that the Bush administration issued them not because of any genuine concern about an attack, but in order to bolster the president's standing in a closely fought election.

It's a disturbingly cynical conclusion that requires its adherents to believe that George Bush is not just a political adversary, but downright evil. It's one thing to believe that a president would mislead voters with a disingenuous election-year claim that "peace is at hand," as the Nixon administration did during the Vietnam War, and quite another to conclude that a president would, for purely political benefit, raise the nation's anxiety level by falsely reporting threats to specific buildings.

Yet that is where we are, and it's not the first time that partisans, confronted with a smorgasbord of possible conclusions about a president, have leapt past dozens of likelier explanations to seize upon the worst one possible. Former President Bill Clinton was the target of similarly sick claims as opponents contended that he and/or Hillary Clinton had murdered Vince Foster (the former president's deputy legal counsel killed himself in 1993), or that, as governor of Arkansas, Clinton knowingly exported AIDS-contaminated blood to Canada.

These are horrendous allegations that purple-faced political enemies pass off as legitimate claims, but that routinely elbow their way into the mainstream of the nation's public debate. Yet how likely is it that any American president, even one under pressure, would murder his lawyer or lie about something as alarming as a specific terror threat? Either could conceivably happen, of course, but only in the same way that a fever could be a symptom of the ebola virus instead of the flu. As they teach medical students: horses, not zebras. Look for the likely diagnosis, not the exotic one.

Yet to many of Bush's opponents, it is not possible that the administration turned up a legitimate threat or, if the administration was wrong, that the mistake was an honest one, or even the result of incompetence. Such reasonable conclusions don't suffice in a time when opposition requires a dose of hysteria.

It is true that politics has always been a blood sport in America, and that politicians sometimes invite over-the-top attacks. Clinton's serial womanizing opened him to legitimate questions about his moral standards. Bush's compulsive swaggering, his devotion to governmental secrecy and his willingness to twist science to suit his preferences give critics ample cause to challenge his judgment.

But the public debate keeps being hijacked by the zebra-spotters. This cannot be the sign of a healthy democracy. To conclude on such flimsy proof that Bush conjured up a mortal threat to thousands of Americans simply to buttress his standing is, of itself, evidence of a kind of political fever.

Something has gone wretchedly wrong when routine political debate requires partisans to ascribe to their opponents not just ideological error, but out-and-out degeneracy. Passion for politics has morphed into something decidedly less attractive and more dangerous to the nation's social health.

Changing the tone of political discourse must begin with the nation's leaders, who should be prepared to smack down the kooks that pop up around them. More than that, though, they need to conduct public debate in a way that is serious and passionate without tilting into gross excess.

Elected leaders also need to understand that once they are caught dissembling, or inserting politics into a warning alert, they have compromised their standing, and given ammunition to the country's thriving corps of conspiracy nuts.

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