Michael D. Barnes is one of those rare members of Congress who knows and cares a lot about his political party. While most Democrats and Republicans tend to view their parties as irrelevancies, if not hindrances, except as they serve as vehicles for their own renomination and reelection, Barnes has always taken the party more seriously.

When I first met him, a bit more than a decade ago, he was the sparkplug of a small group of young lawyers who had worked in various Democratic presidential campaigns in 1972 and were trying to figure out how to rebuild from the wreckage of George McGovern.

Barnes, who had come out of Ed Muskie's campaign, scraped up enough money and help to start the National Democratic Forum and its magazine, Democratic Review, and to put on a national-issues convention in 1975 that drew several thousand activists to Louisville for a weekend session.

As a cure for what ailed the Democrats, it was a good deal less important than Watergate. But Barnes has maintained his interest in party matters even as he has won four successive terms in the House of Representatives and has achieved an increasingly influential role as a Democratic spokesman on Central American policy.

He worked on the Democratic platform committees in both 1976 and 1984, and now finds himself -- after this latest presidential debacle -- once again at the center of an informal group of young Democrats who are searching for the right chairman and right direction for their party.

At the moment, Barnes and his friends are stymied in their quest for someone to head the Democratic National Committee. Ideally, that person should be someone of stature, with television, organizational, fund- raising and basic politcal skills.

But Barnes is clear about the direction the party needs to go if it is going to regain the competitive position in presidential politics it seems to have lost in the last 20 years.

After watching his party lose four of the last five elections, the last two times by landslide margins, Barnes says: "There will obviously be a lot of people saying we have to dismantle the Democratic Party and create something new. I don't think that is true.

"There already is a new Democratic Party in existence in the United States that is quite different from the perception the American people seem to have of the national Democratic Party. That party is alive and well at the state and local level, where it is governing with sound fiscal policies while retaining the traditional values of caring and compassion that have always defined the difference between Democrats and Republicans.

"All across America, and even in the Congress, there is a new generation of Democratic leaders who have been obscured by the layer of leadership that is being stripped away. That new Democratic Party is ready to emerge. What we need in the national party leadership is a commitment not to create a new party, but to let people see the reality that is there, that will make sure these new leaders at the state, county and local level -- and in Congress -- are pushed forward and have a chance to be seen."

My own travels convince me that Barnes is right. He cites Maryland as an example of an almost totally Democratic set of state and local officials who have achieved AAA bond ratings while making significant breakthroughs in social programs and urban revitalization.

There are similar stories in so many other state and local governments where Democrats dominate. One of the signal failures Barnes recognizes in the candidate he supported, Walter Mondale, was his inability to link his campaign to the achievements, the reputations and the popularity of these state and local Democratic leaders.

Instead, Mondale tied his hopes to national constituency and interest groups -- to the organizations of labor, teachers, the elderly, minorities and women -- and learned that they do not add up to a majority.

The problem is not personal; it is institutional. As I wrote at the end of the San Francisco convention, when Democrats were enjoying an undeserved euphoria, the "fundamental flaw in the party's approach to politics (is its) preference for nationalizing its philosophy and procedures and an inclination to ignore the federalism that is built into the structure of American politics and government."

Barnes has put his finger on the key to the Democrats' revival. They need to liberate themselves from their enslavement to the national interest-group politics that now pervades the structure, the operations and the thinking of their national party and rediscover their roots in the flourish- ing leadership of state and local governments.

The Democratic governors and state chairmen are talking among themselves of doing just that, by recruiting and elect- ing their candidate for national chairman. That Barnes is organizing a nucleus of similarly minded Democrats in Congress could be very good news indeed for that party.