Morning Political Note: Knots

In Qalqilya, the Israeli military said it is conducting searches for militants and weapons. Power and water supplies were cut off as at least 60 tanks took up position, and some exchanges of fire were reported. In Ramallah, Arafat remains stranded at his office for a fourth day.

In the West Bank, Palestinian gunmen have killed 11 men suspected of collaborating with Israel. The dead include eight who were taken by militants from a temporary jail and shot in the streets in Tulkarem. The others were killed in Bethlehem and Qalqilya.

Retreating to our forte, domestic political tangles, we're now into April, and political strategists in both major political parties are feeling enough election day heat to get a little bit panicky and loopy.

Clearly, the consensus is true: Democrats ARE in worse shape nationally at this point, although some party strategists argue that they can and will win the cycle race by race, without the need for, or benefit of, a big dynamic.

Still, as we've written for weeks, the Democrats are in search of an election message, with the traditional advantages of momentum and issues that the party not occupying the White House normally has in the midterm elections seemingly absent.

There have been some news stories and news analyses along those lines in the last few weeks, but New York Times columnist Frank Rich, writing for Saturday as much in sadness as in mockdom, went further and better along these lines than anyone else has. We'll excerpt a bit, but if you are interested in politics and/or the Democratic party, read the whole thing. ( http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/30/opinion/30RICH.html )

"If the Democrats stand for anything in a time of rapidly expanding war, it's not clear what it is. Hours before the Passover massacre in Netanya, President Bush could assert that the latest diplomatic foray by Gen. Anthony Zinni was 'making very good progress' with little worry that any Democratic leader would challenge him. The incoherence and indolence of the Bush 'policy' in the Middle East … has been more forcefully dissected by conservatives like George Will than anyone in the administration's opposition. At home, the Democrats can't even offer a serious alternative to the Bush budget for the simple reason that they helped give away the store by abetting the administration's mammoth tax cut last summer and made no legislative push for even partial rollbacks after the fiscal world changed on Sept. 11."

"The explanations for this fecklessness start, of course, with the president's poll numbers. Democrats are so intimidated by them that a recent open memo co-written by James Carville found hope that Mr. Bush was 'falling back to earth' in a survey showing that his approval rating had tumbled from 82 percent in December to a March low of . . . 75."

"It's an index of the general sheepishness of Democratic leaders that such sporadic tough talk as there is usually emanates by default from either the clownish Mr. McAuliffe or the cranky Senate octogenarians Robert Byrd and Ernest Hollings."

Rick Berke summed up the Democrats' problems in his Week in Review piece yesterday — ( http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/31/weekinreview/31BERK.html ) — but he went where no one else has gone before in his Friday New York Times story on the cracks in the Republicans Up with People happy face. It's worth going back to, if only because of the remarkable on-the-record quotes.

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