He’s got a healthy ego, and he’s jumping into the Democratic primaries at a critical juncture when time is running out to challenge President Joe Biden’s reelection. He can read the polls and see voters saying over and over how much they wish there was another choice than is currently offered. At age 54, having enhanced the Phillips name and family legacy in Minnesota, he is ready for a bigger platform.
If he handles his 15 minutes of fame well, he gains name recognition and positions himself to run for the Senate or for governor (because there’s essentially no chance he’d beat Biden). Perhaps, as a consolation prize, his candidacy draws other Democrats into the field and he can take credit for a sitting president having to sweat out winning his own party’s primary.
In other words, he says it’s all about Biden, but it’s really all about him.
Phillips has convinced himself that he’s doing his party and the country a favor by focusing solely on the elephant in the room, Biden’s age. He doesn’t have any known policy differences with Biden. He says Biden has done a spectacular job. He votes with Biden’s policy positions 100 percent of the time.
To Democrats who are onboard with clearing the field for Biden, Phillip’s late entry is “baffling,” says Jim Kessler with Third Way, a centrist Democrat group. “[Phillips] is a measured, intelligent person, but his judgment is way off on this.”
He’s already missed the filing deadline in Nevada, a key early state. Then it’s on to South Carolina, where he’ll get pasted, thanks in large part to Biden’s support from the Black community there. Then Phillips will get swamped in Michigan—and then his quixotic campaign is over, Kessler says.
“My guess is he will not win enough delegates to fill a Greyhound bus,” says Kessler. “There are 4,000 delegates—could he get 70?” Maybe—because Democrats award delegates proportionally to any candidate that can get 15 percent of the vote in a given primary.
Filing his papers in New Hampshire, Phillips was asked about Texas billionaire Harlan Crow’s donation to his congressional campaign in 2019. He said he doesn’t recall ever meeting Crow, then launched into his passion for campaign finance reform, saying money in politics is “destroying this country.” He says he’s the only member of Congress who takes no PAC money and no money from lobbyists. (Will he self-fund his presidential campaign?)
Biden won’t be on the ballot in New Hampshire because of the Democratic Party’s fight with the state over moving its primary. The Party’s rule change no longer recognizes New Hampshire as the first-in-the-nation primary, awarding that distinction to South Carolina. But New Hampshire Democrats seem intent on going ahead and holding their primary early and, as a result, no delegates will be awarded from the Granite State—turning it into a beauty contest between spiritualist Marianne Williamson, progressive talk show host Cenk Ughur, and now Phillips on the ballot.
“Pointless,” says Kessler, “a bandwagon with nobody on it.”
There is more going on than the surface battle. Phillips is reinforcing the Republican talking point that Biden is too feeble for the country to commit to him for another four years. However many Democrats dismiss Phillips’ challenge, he is touching a nerve among some other Dems, as well.
Biden has a strong legislative record that rivals his 20th century predecessors. He has stabilized the economy after the COVID pandemic with a robust growth rate and job creation, yet his poll numbers remain stubbornly low, a reflection some analysts believe is tied to the concerns about his age and ability to do the job for another four years.
There is no practical way at this late stage for the Democrats to switch out Biden, or Kamala Harris for that matter, whose poll numbers are lower than Biden’s.
It would have to be Biden’s decision, and that decision is in the hands of the people closest to him—his wife, Jill, and his sister, Valerie, who has run all his campaigns.
Assuming he sticks by his decision to stand for reelection, he’s going to have to face up to the concerns that voters have about his age. It’s not unlike challenges that previous presidents have faced when a problem poses an existential threat to their viability as a candidate.
John F. Kennedy spoke to Southern Baptist pastors in Sept. 1960 to ease their worries about a Catholic president who might be beholden to the Pope. Barack Obama gave one of the most moving speeches of his career in Philadelphia in 2008 distancing himself from Reverend Wright’s “God Damn America” sermon.
Joking about it—or even flying into war zones—is not going to fix Biden’s problem. With or without Dean Phillips in the race, Joe Biden will have to address the underlying concern about his age and his ability to withstand the rigors of the presidency—and his ability to again vanquish his likely opponent.