Amid Democratic postelection celebrating, there was a bizarre outburst: a malicious attack launched by James Carville against Howard Dean, chair of the Democratic National Committee, demanding his ouster. Carville’s freakish initiative was bogus in every way. He has the same influence in party affairs as any other talking head on CNN–that is, none. In a year when the Democrats achieved their first real Congressional victory since 1992, Carville accused Dean of losing seats by not devoting more money to close House races.

The Ragin’ Cajun was promptly stuffed. Don Fowler, former state party chair of South Carolina, observed: “Asking Dean to step down now, after last week, is equivalent to asking Eisenhower to resign after the Normandy invasion.” Senator Harry Reid, the new majority leader, rallied to Dean too. “I didn’t support his running for the chair of the DNC,” Reid said. “I was wrong. He was right: I support his grassroots Democratic Party-building.”

Carville’s reckless foray, joined by pollster Stanley Greenberg, is worthy of comment only because the two are picking a fight that reflects the deep, potentially explosive fault-line in the party: the battle for control between old and new. Carville speaks for yesterday’s failed politics–the Clinton years. Dean represents a more promising future with his aggressive efforts to rebuild a fifty-state party that grows from the grassroots up.

On the day after the election, Clintonistas-in-Waiting awoke to realize their wing of the party is not represented at the top of the party. For them, it seems, restoration of a Clinton White House–getting Senator Hillary Clinton nominated in 2008–needs inside influence. Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, despite their cultural differences, are both labor liberals. So why not take a shot at Dean and see what happens? Senator Clinton issued a limp disavowal, but if her side wants to start a fight, she can’t have it both ways.

To get the hypocrisy, remember that Carville and Greenberg came to fame with Bill Clinton’s 1992 “Putting People First” victory. The new President promptly turned right, and his White House eviscerated the DNC’s promising coordination of state party campaigns. Clinton politics was all about him. Eight years later, Democrats had lost it all: White House, Senate, House.

In contrast, Dean got a lot of flak when he remarked that Democrats should start talking to everyone, including people in deeply red states. He made the same pitch when he ran for DNC chair in 2005 against the establishment and won.

Surprise–Dean has actually done what he promised. He gets funds to states, with the result that Democrats are speaking directly again to people in red areas, including through ads on Christian-right radio. This is politics for the long term. Nobody expects early conversion in Mississippi. But less than two years after Dean’s launch, Democrats won control of the House and Senate for the first time since the Clinton team lost it in 1994.

The party does face a soul-searching reckoning, and this is a good fight to have. But it should not be determined by the typical push-and-shove of Beltway insiders arguing over tactics. The argument has to be more fundamental: Are Democrats ready to take on the big concerns they have so often finessed in this conservative era? Will they respond to the anger and discontents expressed by people in this election, or will they continue to play it safe?