Thirteen months ago, Howard Dean's presidential bid imploded in an Iowa ballroom. The collective sigh of relief from the Democratic establishment was almost loud enough to drown out the caterwaul that sank Dean's seemingly inevitable march to the nomination. Good riddance, the party's Beltway nomenklatura said, to the irascible Vermont doctor who impolitely dismissed them as "cockroaches" and appeasers, and to his uppity legions of grassroots partisans.

It turns out, however, that Dean was the one with the survival skills of a cockroach. On Saturday, after the outsider candidate outorganized, outshined, and outworked the party's sanctum sanctorum power brokers, Dean emerged as the new Democratic National Committee chair.

Republicans scoff, proclaiming the complete decline of the Democratic Party into screechy fringe-leftism (insert unoriginal scream pun here). David Brooks, the New York Times' resident conservative, dismissed the former centrist governor from a rural state as the voice of a narrow, educated liberal class and declared, "The Democrats are sure to carry Berkeley for decades to come." And Newt Gingrich, who engineered the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, said Democrats are indulging a "death wish" by selecting Dean.

That's ironic. Pro-Dean reformist Democrats, having realized that they belong to a minority party that needs a revolutionary upheaval to regain power from entrenched Republicans, look to Gingrich as a role model. They see two things to emulate: Gingrich's unrestrained partisan aggression and revolutionary reformist zeal. Dean, characteristically, has embraced the Gingrich comparison. Last month he said, "Newt Gingrich decided he was going to try to take back the Congress by drawing a clear distinction between Democrats and Republicans… I think we've got to draw a clear distinction."

So have the Democrats found their Gingrich? Unfortunately, probably not. Dean certainly is a partisan. Like Gingrich, he does not believe in accommodating the other side. "I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for," Dean recently said. On the other hand, he seems determined to accommodate both the Democrats' militant grassroots warriors and their established power players simultaneously. In winning his chairmanship he has sounded increasingly deferential to the current Democratic leadership, at the same he has embraced the idea of devolving power from the center to the periphery. It's a dangerous combination, one that promises to make the Democrats' internal battles more intense, and the party's image more incoherent.

Like Gingrich, Dean casts himself as a reformer. As Ryan Lizza has written in the New Republic, Dean is the candidate of antiestablishment outsiders--the liberal blogosphere, the state parties--that feel contempt for the Beltway establishment (actually, the feeling is mutual). His supporters expect him to wrest control, on their behalf, of the party's message and image from D.C. time-servers. But Dean is no Grim Reaper. His acceptance speech on Saturday was remarkably subdued. Instead, cognizant of the unease he creates in D.C., Dean is making conciliatory noises. He is trying very hard not to say controversial things, and crucially, he has indicated that he will defer on policy and message to insiders like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

What Dean offers instead is a promise to the state parties that they will have more of a voice and more money. He will offer more seats at the table to the outsiders. But he will not overthrow the entrenched D.C. elites--who have a depressingly long track record of failure.

What Dean means by reform, then, is actually anti-Gingrichian. Gingrich-style reform was about centralizing power and enforcing a unified Republican front, both in terms of ideology and message. Pre-Gingrich, Republicans hewed to the Tip O'Neil dictum that "all politics is local." Gingrich turned that maxim on its head, nationalizing the party's message; his 1994 "Contract with America" gave conservative candidates around the country a unified set of themes to run on. And it worked.

Dean, by contrast, offers the worst of both worlds: The incompetent old guard remains in command, but the troops in the field will have more independence to go off and fight their own battles. That means, inevitably, more confusion, more infighting, and a more muddled message. What the Democrats need most is what the Republicans got in the early 1990s: a dynamic leader ruthless enough to impose tight discipline and greater clarity on a foundering party. The party needs smarter leadership at the center, not more competing voices on the periphery. That's not what Dean has promised. For all their superficial similarities, Dean is no Gingrich.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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