If anyone tries to tell you that Howard Dean's likely election Saturday as new chair of the Democratic National Committee is meaningful and darkly significant, try this handy rebuttal: Quick -- who's the Republican chair?

(Answer: It's Ken Mehlman ... though I had to look that up.)

Or, just ask them to name any of the most recent DNC chairs. Debra DeLee (1994-95), anyone? Joe Andrew? (Who, it should always be emphasized, was a truly loathsome weenie whose climactic achievement may well have been to write an astonishingly awful pre-chairmanship spy/sex novel called The Disciples, in which a 300-pound black woman with "melon-wide lips" sexually tortures an American agent named Tommy Wood ... "The fat woman pulled up her dress, past her ballooning underwear, as Tommy's pants fell away, rubbing her mountainous rolls of flesh against his naked, taut body," etc.)

If that doesn't persuade you about Dean's non-newsworthiness, try this Chris Suellentrop column in Slate, which argues that "presidential candidates, not party chairmen, define the policy agendas of political parties."

Convinced? Good. Now, here's why Dean's election is probably meaningful and darkly significant.

Dean's hands are tantalizingly close to the levers of party machinery for four closely interrelated reasons: 1) His primary campaign pioneered and galvanized a new and extremely promising method of grassroots, Internet-enabled fundraising; 2) His was the only Democratic candidacy to attract palpable passion in sizeable numbers; 3) He took great pains to maintain and nurture his organization after dropping out of the race; and 4) Because there is a hung-over sense that after Anyone But Bush didn't work, it's time for feisty, unabashed Democratic assertiveness, not cautious, unconvincing pseudo-centrism.

"The Democratic Party will not win elections or build a lasting majority solely by changing its rhetoric, nor will we win by adopting the other side's positions," Dean wrote in his blog post (of course!) announcing his candidacy. "New ideas and new leaders don't come from consultants; they come from communities."

It's this last bit that worries. Candidate Dean's "communities" swept him away, literally, from his intriguing slot as a gun-toting fiscal conservative who had supported four consecutive American interventions, to a New Old Left that looked suspiciously like a Ralph Nader rally with more laptops.

As he said during last summer's Democratic Convention, in a little gathering of 100 or so high-level Deaniacs, his unexpected position at the crest of an anti-war wave placed him in intimate contact with many people whose politics were more aligned with Nader, former Nader-supporter Michael Moore, and the elfin Dennis Kucinich. "I noticed folks to the left of me ... were saying stuff that turned out to be true."

Among the new left-field revelations? "It really is true that corporations have an outsized advantage and an outsized influence." Also, "You can't say that [the 2000] election wasn't stolen." For those of us who observed that his new supporters were walking him into Nader territory, he snapped back: "Since when is telling the truth radical in this country?"

Dean's chairmanship promises precisely the kind of net-roots groundswell which altered the screamer's very political orientation, even while failing to deliver him any state besides Vermont. Democrats are clearly hoping that this will unleash network effects on fundraising, and mobilize an army of precinct-walkers, all while helping the party relocate its self-confidence and spine. The so-far uncrossed Democratic line in the sand on Social Security could be seen as an example of this new, Howard-inspired assertiveness.

But opposing Bush Administration initiatives is about as far as the Deaniacs have gotten so far; policy proposals have been in short supply. During the Democratic Convention, Dean supporters swallowed their many objections to the party platform and candidates to join the Anybody But Bush coalition, which (partly as a result) offered little substance on non-trivial issues like foreign policy except "we wouldn't do it that way."

Without the unifying discipline of a presidential election, the competing factions of Democrats can go back to fighting for the soul of the party, with Dean insisting (a la Nader) that he represents "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."

But Dean's new (for him) wing is filled with people who espouse "Fair Trade" over "Free," who use "outsourcing" as a slur, who frequently view capitalism and especially corporations with deep distrust, who reflexively oppose American military intervention, whose solution to budget deficits is raising taxes, who frown on his gun-rights enthusiasm, and who (to their strong credit) oppose the prison-industrial complex that has arisen from the shameful War on Drugs.

Because of the twin impacts of the Internet and campaign finance restrictions, these views have the most juice, arouse the most passions, and might well animate the party's structure for the next several years. Even though it's not my party, I'll welcome the new feistiness, and hope against experience that concern for civil liberties is not a passing fad. But if the core principles of the Deanian Democrats turn out to be even more Old Left than the former centrist's campaign, I won't be the only one crying.