Before the big budget vote that signaled that the Democrats had lost effective control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 28 years, two southern representatives were talking about their party.

"If Tip is representative of Democrats, I don't have a Democrat in my district," one of them said of their leader, Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts.

"Well, I could pretty much say that, too," the other replied.

Later, in recounting that conversation, one of the congressmen said:

"Off the record, we're going to have a new speaker if the Democrats retain control of the House next time. I thing Tip's an intelligent fellow. I think he'll see the writing on the wall."

The murmurings of internal discontent about leadership of the nation's oldest political party are commonplace on Capitol Hill these days and not restricted to the more conservative southern Democratic ranks. Liberals and middle-of-the-road, young and experienced, many feel uneasy.

But complaints about the leaders are really only symptoms of deeper troubles for the Democrats. The party has lost its way. A once-dominant coalition is now splintered. Reformers and pragmatists, famous for their inventiveness, now have no sure ideas of the country's future . . . or their own. This season in Washington has put the Democratics at bay . . . and in jeopardy.

When Speaker O'Neill traveled to Austrailia during the recent congressional Easter recess, a northern liberal blunty expressed his feelings about the state of Democratic leadership.

"Tip is reeling on the ropes," Rep. Les Aspin wrote in a blistering newsletter mailed to his Wisconsin constituents. ". . . Tip doesn't understand the explosions that have been going on since November. He's in a fog. Tip is smart enough to understand that there's been a seismic event, but he also realizes that he doesn't understand its nature. He's not part of what's happening and he has no idea where to go."

But O'Neill is "not the only source of problems" for the Democrats, Aspin went on. His prescription:

"The Democratic Party needs some new leadership and it needs it badly.I note the words of Congressman Henry Reuss [another Wisconsin Democratic] a few weeks ago. He said, "The Democrats get credit for being soft-hearted and soft-headed and the Republicans for being hard-hearted and hard-headed.' I think he's right. What we need now are Democrats who are soft-hearted and hard-headed."

Critical words by Democrats about Democrats are not restricted to the House of Representatives. You can hear similiar complaints, publicly and privately, about Sen. Robert C. Byrd's (W.Va.) leadership of Democrats in the Senate, although they are less strongly expressed.

"We have zigged when we should have zagged," Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina says.

His fellow southerner, Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, agrees. "I don't mind saying this on the record -- of course, I'm not anxious to see it in print -- but my feeling is that there is time for a new generation of leadership in the Democratic Party. Anything else is going to be perceived as doing business in the same old way, defending the same old indefensible programs. I think there is a way to defend and champion our coalition and the things we've always stood for, but with more -- I'm trying to think of the word -- realism. Yes, a more realistic way."

Their northern colleague, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, draws a more general portrait of Democratic disarray in the Congress that few could dispute:

"My feeling about the Congress is not that we lost the last election but that we seem to have persuaded ourselves that we've lost the next election. People are acting in anticipation of not just more losses, but of a continuation of the trend of the last few years. That has immoblized us. The Democratic members of the Senate are not a coherent group. They're not an energized group. They expect worse before ever there will be better."

Behind those words lies a larger political story, one that contains all the classic dimensions of a great political party's rise and fall, with suspenseful questions about whether it can recover its old glory.

Over 40 years ago, in another historic season, the Democrats were the minority political party coming to power in a moment of crisis. They transformed the lives of tens of millions of Americans and the society around them, led the nation out of economic disaster into unprecidented prosperity, guided America triumphantly through its greatest war -- and most unpopular ones, both in Asia -- into a period of preeminent world leadership. They dominated political power and ideas for half a century. Then, as the country's fortunes at home and abroad began to darken once more, the Democratic Party saw itself unravel into embittered competing factions.

Now, as their own leading figures freely acknowledge, the Democrats face their greatest moment of crisis. Some of their ranks will tell you their problems are only starting. The Republicans, they fear, stand to win the House of Representatives next year, which would reverse the pattern that has existed since 1934 in which the party winning the presidency loses congressional seats in the next off-year election. A more apocalyptic thesis exists: that the Ronald Reagan Republican victory of 1980 signaled the end of Democratic control of the White House for the rest of this century.

That portrait is overdrawn, to be sure. The Democrats are not dead, what may be the most interesting part of their story is just beginning. But the situation in which they find themselves today presents historic political problems. They extend far beyond the current fingerpointing about the quality of leadership offered by such people as Speaker O'Neill (who is foud of saying a problem of "followership" also exists) and Senate Minority Leader Byrd. And it encompasses more than the obvious splintering of the old coalition, loosely but effectively bound together, northern blacks and southern segregationists, Jewish intellectuals and Roman Catholic day laborers, factory workers and midwestern farmers.

The 1980 election results bore ominous news, and trends, for the Democrats. In losing the presidency they carried only six states. In losing control of the Senate they carried just one-third of all contested seats. In losing a net of 33 seats in the House of Representatives and six out of 13 contested governorships they left the party imperiled nationally. In the state legislatures the story was no better: they lost more than 200 seats across the country.

Nor was this disaster a one-time political aberration. As Peter D. Hart, the Democratic pollster, says: "Contrary to popular belief, the decline of the Democrats did not happen in the last 48 hours of the campaign, nor did it occur in the 12 months preceding election day. It has been coming for some time."

The Democrats suffer from several ailments, simultaneously, as the sampling of conversations with some of the party's better-known people, printed in these pages, makes clear.

They are the victims of success, of a failure to adapt to the most modern political techniques, of the decline of political party affiliations and the rise of independent political action committees that make many Democratic officeholders take their signals from the PAC instead of their party.

They are also the victims of their own over-confidence and too-easy assumption of power accumulated over the last half century, of vastly different public attitudes and ideas of governance outdated by events, of a massive shift in population that profoundly transforms political and economic power as people move from the so-called Frost Belt states into the Sun Belt states, and of the last election with its stunning results and implications.

But most of all they suffer from an inability to agree on what they stand for.

"The Democratic Party is a quadrennial happening, something that happens every four years," says Harry McPherson, a Washington lawyer, author, former key aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson, and active in Democratic strategy groups. "In the meantime, there is a label without much substance. The Republican Party now has a cohesiveness and a meaning and an identity between philosophy and organization that is quite rare in modern American politics. It certainly is very different from the Democratic situation.

"We're a collection of memories. If we're not a shell, we're a mosaic of shattered glass, an entity where there are shards of opinion in every direction. That's developed out of the '60s and the '70s. I also think to some degree we're out of thrust with the country. I'm not sure how much cohesion there is among Democrats. I've sat in rooms recently with 20 or 30 of them where the range from the southern Democratic congressman who is deputy whip of the House to Jerry Wurf [head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest such union] was gigantic. Imagine them being the same party, and yet they are . . . .

"As far as what the Democrats believe today, I think we're in a period of groping around. I'm confused and I have a sense a lot of Democrats are in the same boat. 'Where do we stand?' is our problem. Col. Travis at the Alamo drew the line with his sword in the dirt and said, 'Everybody step over who wants to fight,' and all did but one. Well, where do you draw that line in the dirt? What is there that is too precious to ever consider repealing or sacrificing without a fight?"

Some think the fight already is lost. Another LBJ aide and confidant, Horace Busby, who served Johnson for 25 years, wrote many of his speeches, and shared his moments of victory and defeat, sees the Democrats falling victim to what he calls "the Republican lock" on the presidency. Busby, now a political consultant in Washington, pronounced that arresting thesis a few weeks before the Republican sweep in November.

"What is happening as of now," he said then, "is what leaders of the Democratic Party have feared, and tried to fend off, since the Republican Party returned to power with the Eisenhower victory in 1952. Eisenhower took much of the West away from the Democrats and made the first strong penetration into the Solid South. On that base, Republicans have been accruing, virtually without note in political commentary, a larger and larger bloc of Electoral College votes likelyl to go only GOP."

In studying the seven presidential elections before the Reagan landslide, Busby found that "most of the states most of the time have voted for the Republican candidate." Since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, when the modern Democratic Party era began, only Lyndon Johnson succeeded in carrying the West for the Democrats. With the population shifting in ever greater numbers to that section, and the already overwhelming preponderance of Electoral College votes there going regularly Republican, the Democratic problem grows worse.

Now, looking back on the November results, Busby says: "I used to think the Democrats would hang together until 1988. I don't think so now." He sees the Conservative Democratic Forum, that congressional bloc from the South and Southwest that carried the day for Reagan by voting with him on his budget proposals, as controlling the House of Representatives. "And it will continue to do so as long as it wishes," he says. "This represents the stength of the Sun Belt."

The electoral problems confronting the Democrats were sharply highlighted in a memorandum Moynihan prepared two days after Reagan's inauguration. He gave it to the candidates for the Democratic Party's chairman, then about to be selected. His point was, as he wrote, that the East had become the Democrats' electoral base. Of the party's presidential prospects, he wrote succinctly: "Not good."

Moynihan added: "Of the last six presidential elections Democrats and Republicans have had three victories each. In 1984 there will be 31 states (with 299 electoral votes) which the Republican presidential candidate has carried four times in the last six presidential elections. There are only 10 states where Democratic presidential candidates have won at least four times in the last six races. These 10 states will have 140 electoral votes in 1984."

To carry the White House, it takes 270 electoral votes.

"It may reasonably be said," Moynihan went on, "that the Democratic Party will not return to the White House until it nominates a candidate who can carry California. Even so it has come to pass that the electoral base of the party is now in the East."

That, obviously, is not enough.

No amount of analysis, however accurate, conveys the present state of the Democratic Party. They are divided, uncertain, unhappy, and, in some quarters, embittered.

"As a party, we lost the election," says a senior congressional Democratic aide and libereal strategist, Richard P. Conlon. "But we have subsequently turned it into a debacle by failing to speak out and failing to argue about what this election was about."

The more Conlon talked about the Democrats' dilemma, the more the frustration poured forth. His viewpoint is not untypical.

"I think our problems go back many years into the 1960s," said Conlon, who is staff director of the House Democratic Study Group, the voice of once-influential liberalism. "I've been saying for a number of years we don't stand for anything. We haven't stood for anything since the early 1960s. We had a consensus then around a series of issues which eventually got enacted into law under the label of the Great Society. Since that time this party has not been pushing for anything. It has been essentially defensive. It has not had a program. We lost 47 Democratic seats -- or 49, I forget which -- in 1966 and everybody thinks 33 now is a big loss.

"From 1965 on the lack of clothing has not been noticed because we had the Vietnam War consuming our attention. We had Watergate consuming our attention. We had the energy crisis consuming our attention.

"And the issues before the Congress have not been social issues. They have been issues that divide you along lines of what kind of a district do you come from? Is it one that gets you a good deal or a bad deal out of revenue sharing? Is it a suburb or is it a big city district? It's really been internal squabbling over the formula, what was coming out of the federal machine. They've had little to do with what our personal convictions are, what our philosophy of government and life is all about.

"As a party, we just haven't had anything that we could stand for. The Republicans went around with the family issue and we went around talking about sectional politics or piecemeal politics -- you know, the blacks, the farm vote, this vote, that vote. They've really talked more to people in terms of values where we've talked to them more in terms of the color of their skin, their economic status, their work status, their educational level, whatever. The terms are all so pathetically meaningless it's beyond belief."

This is a harsh indictment, but one many Democrats will recognize as containing uncomfortable truth. As they will with another observation: "It isn't a question of running out of ideas. We've forgotten how to articulate what in the hell it is that we're really all about as a party."

The problem for the Democrats tomorrow, as Frederick G. Dutton, one of their more thoughtful practitioners puts it, is both simple and complex. It is not whether the Democrats can come back if Reagan and the Republicans stumble and fall. Given the random events of politics, that is clearly possible. The question for the future, Dutton observes, is whether Democrats deserve to be returned to power. HART

About the time I came back here in '75, more specifically '76, I began to sense that all was not well with New Deal politics. I really had begun to sense it in '72.

I had an advantage that very few people have had. That is, I went through an election [as manager of George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign] in a watershed period that was the height of Vietnam, the beginning of Watergate, and just before the OPEC oil embargo, three cataclysmic events of modern political times. They all broke almost simultaneously.

The hinge year for New Deal politics -- that is, activist government New Deal politics -- was probably '73. Nixon proved that big government is not necessarily a benign government; OPEC proved that our economy was vulnerable to international influence, and the Vietnam War proved that we couldn't have our way in the space of 12 months. The roof just collapsed on this country. And I was involved in that before the great wave crashed, but I sensed it.

What I sensed was a real shortage of liberal capital in this country. We had been running a national political campaign on used goods.

There are essentially three tides in the Democratic Party. One is to preserve the status quo -- that is, protect the New Deal and the Great Society. The other is essentially "let's become more Republican," particularly on military and foreign policy. That's the neo-conservative movement. The third, and perhaps most interesting and most difficult, is the actual redefinition of the Democratic Party.

In shortland, that means to try and figure out non-bureaucratic, non-programmatic methods of dealing with the realities of the '80s and '90s in ways that do not abandon the fundamental principles of the Democratic Party.

Now that is difficult. It is complicated. In some sense, it's profound because you're trying to do almost what Franklin Roosevelt did without the economic cataclysm to operate as a catalyst forcing these things to happen. BUMPERS

The Democrats are still a party in disarray. They still have not determined with any degree of precision where they want to go. I think they're still smarting from that last election. There's this sort of sub rosa feeling that that they have to be defensive about Reagan initiatives, even though at their belt-buckle level they feel he's probably right about some of these things.

Frankly, I think some of them may be scared he is right, and that the whole thing may come out exactly or close to what he's predicting for his economic programs. As a matter of fact, I don't know any economists who don't feel that that three-year tax cut would be devastating to him as well as to the country.

My own thought is that this ought to be a time for quiet discipline and planning on the part of the Democratic Party -- and above all patience. Those Democrats who feel that if they go along with everything he asks for, or a major portion of it, then there's going to be a corresponding dimunition in the degree of opposition the next time they run are just living in a dream world.

. . . I think the Democrats are going to have to become less defensive about a lot of those programs which have not worked. We need to do a little culling -- not cutting and running, not backing away from what I consider moral absolutes. But I do think for us to defend an indefensible program, or because we put it in place continue to say it's just been poorly administered and it's still a good program, would be devastating to us. It would be equally devastating for us to back away from our traditional constituencies and the things that we really believe in.

I think the Democrats may make the bad mistake of not believing in much of anything and winding up all over the lot. McGOVERN

There are two areas where the Democrats are weak, noticeably weak. First is the obvious mechanical deficiency, the fact that the Republicans are probably eight to 10 years ahead of us in using the new sophisticated techniques of politics -- computers, direct mail, the grass-roots organizing, the development of themes, the use of media, research, the whole range of mechanical things that a party does.

What makes that all the more serious is that the right wing is equally advanced in using those techniques. At the very least, if we started working full time right now on this problem, it'd be five years before we'd even be close to the Republicans on the soliciting of funds, grass roots.

A more serious problem is the absence of ideas and constructive, innovative issue positions. I don't think the Democrats offer very much in that area.

Ordinarily, one would expect that an incumbent party would lose a few seats, but I think this time it may be the other way around. If you had a number of articulate, innovative people in the House and the Senate taking the administration on, it would be different. But I don't detect that. It seems to me there's silence.

There are several factors as to why we got in such a position. I suppose I sound like a one-record man, but I think the Vietnam war just tore the Democratic Party in half. It was a devastating experience to go through. It just knocked the bloom off the rose. Not only that, I think it almost poisoned the roots. It ripped the Democratic Party up to the point where it may be a generation before we get over that. And you have the emergence of this neo-conservative movement inside the Democratic Party.

We always had the split on civil rights where we were sort of spiritually at war between the liberals and the southerners. That went to the very soul of the party, but this seems to be different.This isn't along geographic lines. It's beyond that. This neoconservative group is so anti-arms controls; they want a rigid, hard-line foreign policy; they will support any kind of increase in military spending. On almost every debate that comes up on budget priorities, they weigh in with what we used to think were sort of the Goldwater hard-line wing of the Republican side. So that's a continuing problem. It goes beyond Vietnam, but I think the two are related. MOYNIHAN

I have been very struck by the degree to which the Democratic tradition of being a party that believed government was an active agent in our lives has been turned into that of being a party of government, which is a very different thing. We have let ourselves be turned into a party of government, which is not a very smart party. While that has been happening, the Republicans have become a party of ideas. I don't say the party of ideas, but ideas nonetheless. The intellectual base of our party is deeply eroded.

One of the things that worries me very much is that in the course of the 1970s we became rather intolerant. The party which Teddy White now calls the convention party became very intolerant. As a lot of my friends would put it, the Republicans beat us with our own ideas that we rejected. I mean the way that some people, such as I, got to be seen as heretical. An awful lot of people in the '70s. Then they, in turn, disappeared themselves. Just like the radicalized cohorts of the 1960s have disappeared. They had no staying power at all. They're just gone.

That term "neo-conservative" is a term I have always resented, and not simply because it is a term coined in epithet. It first appeared in Dissent , by Micheal Harrington, saying these people aren't liberals at all, they are neo-conservatives. That's in the tradition of calling the socialists of the 1930s social fascists because they're really not left enough for you. This has sort of discredited a serious reforming movement in the Democratic Party saying "don't get out of hand here" to the party. By rejecting that, suddenly you've got the Congress that's sitting around here now.

My feeling about the Congress is not that we lost the last election but that we seem to have persuaded ourselves that we've lost the next election. People are acting in anticipation of not just more losses, but of a continuation of the trend of the last few years. That has immobilized us. The Democratic members of the Senate are not a coherent group, they're not an energized group. They expect worse before ever there will be better.

We have now in our party a conservative caucus, and I would like them to talk to us, tell us what they think, rather than just start voting solidly against us. Wouldn't it better if we talked to each other? Otherwise, we're going to get more surly and the split is going to grow worse. You know, we're going to lose those Southerners and we don't have any Westerners, and we're going to be a party of the Northeast, which is a minority party by definition and not a very good party.