YOU'VE GOT TO hand it to the Democrats, first for reasons of sheer grit. Any other political collectivity with that many internal divisions and so ingrained a habit of coming apart the minute it is brought together under a single roof, would be looking for ways to hold fewer conventions, not more. But the Democrats have now stepped it up to once-every-two-years. Is that a good or bad thing? We think it is a good thing -- a useful political rite. And we also think that Jimmy Carter turned this year's midterm conference in Memphis to public advantage.

Not that it was always easy to spot anything of substance in the proceedings as they unfolded. For at the simplest level these gatherings are public entertainments, part sporting event and part ritual drama. Who will win? Who will lose? Who will get the loudest cheers? Will the rumored uprising take place? Will the authorities strong-arm grassroots delegates? And so forth. That Sen. Edward Kennedy will make a stem-winder, provoking floods of new speculation about his national ambitions, is a given. So is the predictable conflict over whether the party is about to abandon its commitment to liberal social purposes -- and a collection of ill-matched purposes they are, ranging from the preposterous (and illiberal) dictum that half the next convention's delegates must be female, to the urgent and dead serious business of financing adequate national health care.

Precisely because there is so much at play that is ritualistic and reflexive, it can be hard to see the out-lines of the real issues and real conflict. Some Democrats -- out of nothing more sinister, we suspect, than pure laziness -- insist on regarding the outflow of more federal bucks for nonmilitary programs and the assertion of more federal authority in the nation's public life as the standard by which an administration's goodheartedness is judged. And they were present in force (though not in majority force) in Memphis, defending the worse programs along with the better, refusing to face up to the economic conditions in which their party must govern and also evading certain disagreeable and disappointing truths about some of the programs they have sponsored and enacted in the past. In their eagerness to jump Jimmy Carter for alleged softness on military spending, they also failed to acknowledge -- as Vice President Mondale pointed out -- that the president, with his defense authorization veto, his cancellation of the B1 and various similar actions, had been harder on Pentagon plans and proposals than any of his predecessors in recent memory.

There are three things (at least) wrong with all this, and the first and most obvious is that it urges on the country's major political party a nationally perilous set of values and policies. Control of inflation and the related defense of the dollar are not "optional" items on a political smorgasbord: they are the central and overriding imperatives of national government just now; and, especially because of the reputation of his party, the president is under a heavy obligation to show that he is not going to encourage an array of self-defeating exceptions to his resolve to vastly reduce the federal deficit.

The second thing wrong is the characterization of the sharpened Carter concern for the ravages of inflation as an "illiberal" policy. This is no place to embark on the metaphysics of what-is-a-liberal, etc. But we will state it as a certainty that it is a misdefinition of liveralism to suggest that it is somehow in favor of any and all federal government expenditures on social programs and extensions of authority into peoples' lives and indifferent to efforts to modernize the nation's military or to get a long overdue grip on inflation and its effects on the average householder.

The final problem is that this cast of mind diverts people from the real business at hand, which should be that of participating with intelligence and discrimination in the budget-cutting and program-deferring that must occur. To their credit (and to that of the president and his organizers) the Democrats in Memphis, by their votes, if not their lusty cheers, acknowledged the new state of affairs in which they find themselves governing. The question is whether they will take the obvious next step and challenge Mr. Carter in a thoughtful, coherent way on a program by program basis, conceding the need to cut here for the purpose of restoring and maintaining there. It would be a curious irony if those most concerned to save the better parts of the social program were to forfeit their opportunity for the sake of hollering up a profitless storm.