AUSTIN, Texas -- Across the length and breadth of this great land of ours, from the mountain to the prairie, from every hill and dale comes the question, "Where are the Democrats?"

They're among the missing, along with Judge Crater and Osama bin Laden. The venerable political organization, the party of Jackson and Jefferson, is not to be found in action. OTAM -- out to all meals. So this is what it's like to live in a one-party country.

Is it possible, remotely possible, that Democrats are frightened by the John Ashcroft-Trent Lott school of "patriotism," which holds that questioning our elected (or even not-so-elected) leaders is tantamount to disloyalty if not treason? That expressing concern about our fundamental liberties helps terrorists? For that line of attack to be treated with anything but the contempt it deserves is itself un-American, not a word I use lightly.

As if the argument is not contemptible enough, one has only to look at the performance of these same definers of "patriotism" as blind obedience when Bill Clinton was struggling to fight a war. When the Clinton administration was trying to track and kill Osama bin Laden, Republicans gratuitously dismissed the entire effort as an attempt to change the subject from the all-important Monica Lewinsky.

And there we do come to one real reason the Democrats are so quiet. Political opposition in the Clinton years was so shatteringly nasty, no one wants to be seen anywhere near it now. To be accused of being "partisan" now stands for a level of conduct so degraded and degrading, we have forgotten what principled opposition means.

However, President Bush's sex life has nothing to do with the fact that his foreign policy is so inept that all the Arab countries, including our friends and allies the Saudis and the Egyptians, are now siding with Saddam Hussein rather than the United States. You really have to work at it to produce a result that bad.

We still haven't caught bin Laden or any of the other leaders of Al Qaeda, who are presumably regrouping and plotting some fresh horror. We haven't even finished the job in Afghanistan, as we are reminded daily, but the administration seems to have dropped that like a hot rock and gone off to plan invading Iraq -- which has no known connection with Sept. 11 -- instead. Already we are abandoning Hamid Karzai by refusing to cooperate with the Brits to maintain order there.

Someone suggested the other day if the Republicans were in the opposition, they'd have an "Osama calendar" updated daily: "It's now 254 days since Sept. 11 and still bin Laden eludes our clueless leaders." But that is precisely the sort of opposition we don't need.

Suggestions for how to fix things are a lot more useful than sitting around complaining about how fouled up things are. How do we get Sharon to accept the idea that the settlers on the West Bank have to go? How about talking the Arab countries into co-funding a Marshall Plan for the West Bank? Why not call in Bruce Urquhart, the U.N. diplomat who settled several wars, as a sort of senior consultant?

And why NOT remind people that Bush was warned over and over that letting the Middle East crisis get worse was folly? Why not point out that suggestions and solutions offered before Sept. 11 were ignored by Bush? Why not explain that the consequences of arrogant unilateralism are simply unacceptable? The old American isolationist tendency is always too ready to conclude, "You just can't deal with Those People." Of course you can. Disaster is not inevitable, but it can sure be encouraged by inaction. And that includes inaction by Democrats.

From Sept. 12 on, this administration ignored repeated calls for energy conservation. At a time when all Americans were ready to do anything to help, we could have started a "get out of the SUVs, cut the mileage, carpool, take a bus" campaign. To help one's country in a concrete way like saving fuel, and in turn reducing our dependence on unstable allies and freeing up our foreign policy options, was such an obvious step. And the Bush administration should take all the lumps it's got coming for having failed to do so.

So what did the Democrats do? Nineteen Democratic senators recently voted with the Republicans against requiring automakers to increase gas mileage. The Middle East is now so volatile an oil embargo is not that unlikely. We could have bought ourselves quite a bit of insurance by now, had we acted promptly.

Many elected Democrats apparently think this administration is so set in its unilateralist ways, there's no point in trying to move on the Kyoto Treaty, or the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, or the International Criminal Court (which would have been such a useful option for dealing with bin Laden.) Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin delivered, over the years, 3,211 speeches on why we should sign the U.N. Convention Against Genocide. It took 19 years. Let's get started.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2002 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.