It is hard to tell how many defeats the Democrats will have to absorb before they begin to grasp the lesson the country is trying to teach them. But there was disquieting evidence last week that they still do not understand at least one of the fundamental points the people have been trying to get across for a decade: everything does not have to be run from Washington.

>Last weekend, on the eve of the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, a group of Democratic governors met with members of the party's Senate and House leadership to discuss President Reagan's budget proposals and his federalism initiative to shift some 40 programs to the states. On the stiff budget cuts and staggering deficits, the Democrats had a great deal to say. But the federalism initiative--the congressional spokesmen did not deign to discuss it.

Assistant Senate Democratic leader Alan Cranston of California, one of the spokesmen at the press briefing, said Democrats would focus on federalism issues "at an appropriate time"--when the budget is approaching balance and unemployment is below 6 percent.

House Rules Committee Chairman Richard Bolling of Missouri, the other spokesman, agreed. He said the whole federalism matter might be referred to a governmental study commission he is trying to get Congress to create.

Cranston and Bolling are men of superior reputation and influence among congressional Democrats. The disdain they displayed for the presidential proposal for decentralization of the domestic government was as characteristic of their party in Washington as it was revealing.

The Democrats on Capitol Hill simply do not hear--or heed--the public dissatisfaction with the concentration of power in Washington.

There is much politically valid criticism of Reagan's proposal to shift programs and resources to the states: that the scheme contradicts the long-stated conclusions of state and local officials on the best ways to sort out responsibilities of different levels of government; that it is deficient in its finances; that it ignores certain national obligations to indigent populations; that it is undercut by Reagan's own immediate budget reductions.

These points have been made by some Republicans in Congress (notably Sen. David Durenberger of Minnesota) and a number of governors and state legislators of both parties.

But to brush the proposal aside as irrelevant, "a diversion," as the congressional Democratic leadership did, is to invite deserved ridicule.

Some Democratic officials insist that the brushoff was simply a political tactic, an effort to keep the spotlight on the budget and economy, where Reagan is vulnerable, rather than letting him shift it to a politically appealing scheme for cutting down on "big government."

That rationale would be plausible were it not for the Democrats' long history of hostility to anything that would reduce Congress' control of the sprawling domestic side of government.

With a few exceptions, like former senator Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, congressional Democrats have been totally indifferent to the serious intellectual and political effort of the past 20 years to construct a sensible scheme for decentralizing domestic government.

It took virtual political blackmail by governors, legislators and mayors of both parties to blast President Nixon's plan for general revenue-sharing through a hostile Democratic Congress in 1972. The first time thereafter that a Democratic president and Congress were in power, they killed revenue-sharing for the states.

It was typical of the Democrats that in all the 26 years they controlled the House and Senate, their congressional leadership never scheduled a formal discussion of federalism issues--or any others--with their party's governors. The first such meeting was held late last year, at the invitation of Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who had been demoted from majority leader to minority leader by the 1980 election reverses. The second meeting was last weekend, and, sensing that Reagan's troubles may bring them back to power, the congressional Democrats were ready to write federalism off their agenda.

I do not understand why they are so blind to this subject. Three-fifths of the state legislators and 27 of the 50 governors are Democrats, and those numbers will probably increase in November. State government is hardly in enemy hands, and the big city halls are overwhelmingly Democratic.

But the congressional Democrats have never learned to trust their colleagues back home. So they remain hostile to what is, quite evidently, a public desire to move power out of Washington and into the states and communities.

I guess the voters will just have to keep hitting them on the head until the message sinks in.