REP. PAT Williams of Montana was sitting in the Speaker's Lobby, that short stretch of marble outside the House chamber where confidences are exchanged and deals struck. He had, like all other Democrats, had a strenuous day at "venting." His conclusion: "There's a message here, we just don't know what it was."

He survived the Nov. 8 massacre. He's not sure why. He is far more liberal than his state. He believes in government. His Republican opponent, Cy Jamison, appointed to the Bureau of Land Management by George Bush, unleashed the same charges that had proved so lethal to his brothers and sisters: Williams had been on the job too long -- 14 years -- and he was a friend of Bill Clinton's.

But Williams had avoided fire from the National Rifle Association, by voting against the crime bill. He had been such a diligent conservationist that he beat back an unknown "green" candidate.

Montana voters didn't for a minute mistake Williams for a clone of Bill Clinton. They even forgave him for not running away from the president. The antipathy toward the First Family has deepened into blind rage. The president is cursed as a draft-dodger. Hillary Rodham Clinton sets off sputtering: "Who the hell does she think she is?" and "Who elected her?" But Williams spoke well of the president when he could and the newspaper headline he prizes most from the campaign is one that reads, "Williams Defends Incumbency and Clinton." He thinks Montanans prize independence or "conviction" more than anything.

Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) who might well have gone down in the anti-liberal, anti-feminist gales that blew so fiercely, came back unbowed. To her, the causes of the calamity were quite simple. The Democrats were outmaneuvered. The Republicans put out the word: "If you are a Democrat, you are pond scum; if you are a Republican, you can do no wrong." The phenomenon of 100 percent Republican incumbent survival is the most radioactive element in the rubble for Democrats. They do not know definitively if turnout was the critical factor. If Democrats stayed home to avoid voting Republican, the problem may be fixable. Otherwise, the Republican gloating about realignment of the parties is justified, and the Democrats may be doomed to the desert for another generation.

Meanwhile, there are the next two years to be gotten through, and the president is getting a great deal of solicited advice on how to proceed. Most House members urge him to divest himself of the idea that if he is nice to the Republicans, they will be nice to him. "They're out to scalp him," says Williams.

The Southerners, who also suffered heavy losses -- Jim Sasser in Tennessee, Jack Brooks in Texas -- somehow feel vindicated and have told their colleagues they should heed them. The talk about "old" and "new" Democrats, a staple of punditry in the last few weeks, does not penetrate the venting sessions.

Half a dozen Southerners stood up in the caucuses to pledge their allegiance to the party of their forefathers. They expressed appreciation for the great Democratic public works, the Rural Electrification Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority, that had benefited their region. Reports of imminent defections from their ranks had been much exaggerated, they said. A Northerner observed sardonically, "They aren't even needed over there. They have nothing to bargain with."

Those who argue that the Democrats are paying the price for decades of sniffing at family values could examine without profit the outcome of a race in California's 41st District. Incumbent Ken Calvert, a Republican, who was discovered in a car with a prostitute by a state policeman, was easily re-elected. His rival, a local high school English teacher who was charged with being gay, took the Fifth on sexual preferences. The voters were apparently convinced by Calvert's explanation that he and the prostitute were discussing the vicissitudes of single-parenthood -- or maybe they were making a statement about homosexuality or, since it was California, about the morality of not coming out of the closet when summoned. Who knows?

Oafishness was no bar to voter favor. Republican Martin Hoke of Ohio, who was caught on an open mike making remarks about the anatomy of a female television producer, is back. Wyoming state legislator Barbara Cubin, a Republican, baked penis-shaped cookies and distributed them to her colleagues. She is alive and well on Capitol Hill.

It worked against Tom Foley in Washington state, for Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts. About the only thing Democrats think they learned from Nov. 8 is that voters hate government, think it should be cut down -- and should do more for them without any additional taxes. It's not very valuable information.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.