Washington’s frustrated Democrats seem to be trapped in a political bad spell as they search for a way to regain control of their destiny and our government.

They think they are asking: Whither the Democrats?

But their actions are producing a different outcome: Wither the Democrats.

The Democrats seem to be shrinking right before our eyes. Shrinking because they are shirking, not leading. Democrats seem reactive and negative, not active and positive. They seem content to respond to President Bush’s ideas with political tactics and PR sound bites _ not problem-solving strategies and solutions.

Now, more than ever, with uncertainty at home and abroad, people are seeking leadership to solve our concerns that, one way or another, are all about a desperate search for fundamental security: Yes, Social Security is one thing that can no longer be ducked; and it is not enough for Democrats just to attack the president’s deficit-skyrocketing proposal without offering long term solutions. And Social Security may be the least-urgent of the security concerns that affect our lives _ right now! _ and yet are being ducked, dodged, dithered or dismissed: Health-care security, job security, energy security, environmental security, national and international security. And the full range of homeland security concerns beyond anti-terrorism, including keeping our families safe at home, at work, in our schools and on our streets.

In short, constructive alternative proposals. Democrats could learn by recalling the days when the GOP was a floundering congressional minority. When President Johnson was pushing his costly Great Society domestic programs through a Democratic Congress, Republicans were perpetually negative, just saying “no.” So, concerned House Republicans called a press conference in 1967 to propose a series of rather bold policy alternatives _ including block grants so states could make their own rules, rather than receiving Washington money wrapped in Washington red-tape.

That Republican blueprint came to be called by a positive-sounding tag: “Constructive Republican Alternative Proposals.” Oh-oh. Washington being a city of alphabet acronyms, Democrats gleefully referred to the opposition’s program by its unfortunate, initials-only shorthand.

Fast-forward: In the House, we recently saw an example of how Democrats fail to help themselves even when the facts and arguments are on their side. House Rules Committee ranking minority member Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y., issued a 147-page report listing and denouncing heavy-handed ways House Republicans stifled debate and rammed legislation into law. The report, titled “Broken Promises: the Death of Deliberative Democracy,” correctly noted that was just the opposite of what Republicans promised when they captured the House a decade ago. Even former Speaker Newt Gingrich _ who led the GOP out of its quicksand to capture the House _ has said House Republicans “should open up the rules more.”

But the Democrats’ document read like 147-pages of political whining about parliamentary rules and complexities. It failed to make itself meaningful to ordinary Americans because it didn’t link the GOP rule-bending to government actions that hit regular people. The report has received scant coverage in the news media. And while journalists should dig deeper for context that tells readers and viewers why they should care, smart politicians know that the only way to communicate a message is to spoon-feed it to news-hungry reporters who often seem as satisfied by fast-food as by filet mignon.

Buried in the document (on pages 44 and 45), were a few factoids that could have been emphasized to show people how they got short-changed when bills were rushed blindly into law: the new Medicare law’s estimated $500 billion cost wasn’t discovered until after it was enacted; and a provision was quietly slipped into another bill cutting Pell grants for 90,000 students and raising tuition for another 1.2 million Pell recipients.

Politically tone deaf Democrats need to hear what voters want and need from leaders. Then they need to unite and lead boldly by proposing constructive solutions so the real debates can begin _ and we can begin solving today’s problems rather than passing the buck (and big bucks deficits) on to the next generation.

But the way things are going, even if the Democrats decide to change course and lead, they’ll probably call their new initiative something uplifting like “Democrats Unite (for a) New Generation” _ to the glee of the GOP and Washington’s acronym police.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)