A special panel of the Democratic Party today found itself mired in a rhetorical standoff over disciplining wayward-voting congressmen and other elected officials, but black leaders mapped plans to revive the debate at an issues workshop Saturday.
The issue, an age-old dilemma for any party, has emerged at the midterm conference here as an intramural tug of war between the so-called "Boll Weevils" who supported President Reagan's economic program, and a collection of black, labor and women's groups who want to bring sanctions against them for their votes.
Today, the Boll Weevils sent two of their own, Reps. John B. Breaux (La.) and Kent Hance (Tex.) to argue the proposition that the strength of the party is in its diversity and that the only legitimate sanctions are those applied directly by the voters.
They forcefully took the issue to their fellow Democrats. "I am a member of no organized party," said Breaux, quoting the famous line of humorist Will Rogers, "I'm a Democrat."
That notion of ideological flexibility did not sit well with the black caucus, which agreed unanimously to submit a resolution to the civil rights workshop Saturday calling for elected officials to be held accountable "not merely in rhetoric, but in action" for failing to uphold the party's principles, especially those opposing racial discrimination.
Last month the Democratic National Committee Executive Committee adopted a nearly identical resolution, lacking only the reference to racial discrimination.
Though it carries no specific threat of penalties and no power to punish, it was intended by its author, Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Ind., as a warning shot across the bow of the Boll Weevils.
"If you run as a Democrat and get elected as a Democrat, you ought to act like a Democrat," said Hatcher, who has called for party financial support to be withheld from those who consistently ignore the party platform.
Breaux said that any party which tries to apply a litmus test of voting record or ideological purity to candidates seeking financial support will automatically find itself on a slippery slope.
"While many of the so-called Boll Weevils voted against the Democratic budget in the House last month , a majority of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus did not support it either," he said.
"It bothers me if we say it's okay to oppose the Democratic leadership if you think it's too conservative, but not okay if you think it's too liberal." Hatcher, however, freely acknowledged he was saying something very close to that.
"The difference is that the budget the members of the Congressional Black Caucus wanted is one that would have done more for the historical constituents of the Democratic Party," he said.
As the colloquy suggests, and as many of the speakers to the party's Commission on Platform Accountability agreed, the Democrats need to tackle a different question before they take on the issue of sanctions.
The question is: What do the Democrats stand for? Is there some overarching set of principles upon which all can agree, and which therefore can become a standard against which to measure the need for disciplinary action?
Panel vice chairman Terry Herndon, president of the National Education Association, said the commission in the months ahead will try to define a set of "cardinal principles" that would occupy a higher order than the more detailed party platform.
But even if the panel can adopt such a credo between now and 1984, when it is to report to the full convention, there remains the unending purist-versus-pragmatist tactical debate over whether strays from the fold should be spanked.
Testimony on that question came in from elected officials at all levels of government. William Cole, state treasurer of Mississippi, cautioned the party against "crucifying itself on a cross of ideological purity."
Breaux said Democrats who are out of step with the party members of their district will pay for it at the polls, and noted by way of example last month's primary defeat of Rep. Ron M. Mottl (D-Ohio).
That campaign graphically illustrated the lack of a consensus within the party high councils over the issue of sanctions.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee supported Mottl despite his voting record, a stance that Democratic National Committee Chairman Charles T. Manatt said he disgareed with.
The other Boll Weevil who spoke, Hance, said he and his 46 colleagues in the Conservative Democratic Forum had committed no sin other than voting their districts.
He noted that in 1980, those 47 Democrats ran an average 35 percent ahead of the party presidential candidate.
What could stand as the summary testimony of the hearing session came from Lt. Gov. Madeline Kunin of Vermont, who spoke of the ambivalence of "liking the present system of flexibility but not liking the lack of accountability . . . We as party leaders are caught in a bind, either being accused of strong-arming or being disarmed."