The 54-year-old Phillips, a successful entrepreneur who has owned and started several companies, is new to national politics, assuming office in 2018 as the first Democrat to win his suburban Minneapolis district in 60 years. And he is no progressive, describing himself on X/Twitter as an “eternal optimist, radical pragmatist, common sense enthusiast, and bipartisan believer.” That presumably means he would favor turning down the heat on the tribal posturing of the two major parties. But the real problem for Biden posed by Dean Phillips is not ideological – he has voted for this president’s initiatives 100% of the time, according to the White House. It is that Biden has refused to turn power over to a younger generation after promising in 2020 to be a transitional figure. In other words, Phillips’ focus is on the single biggest obstacle to Biden’s re-election effort, one not even the quintessential career politician like Biden can promise to fix: his advanced age – and the declining cognitive fitness that came with it. Biden knew to expect such assertions by Trump and Republicans. He did not count on it happening within his own party, nor did big media. Vanity Fair lamented the turn of events by posting a picture of a Phillips campaign bus – plastered with the slogan “Make America Affordable Again” – accompanied by the headline: “Dean Phillips Apparently Has a Campaign Bus. Will He Throw Joe Biden Under It?”
A Cause for Concern
This particular challenge to Biden cannot simply be dismissed out of hand for one good reason, which has less to do with Phillips’ actual credentials than historical precedent and the signal it sends to voters that fellow Democrats view Biden as vulnerable. Incumbent presidents rarely win elections after being challenged within their party’s primary. Just ask Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, sitting presidents who won their party’s nomination despite intra-party challenges, but went down to inglorious defeat in November. President Lyndon B. Johnson withdrew from the 1968 race after multiple primary challenges. President Harry S. Truman likewise chose not to run for a second full term in 1952 after his approval dropped into the 30% range.
At the same time, this is not like Ted Kennedy challenging Carter in 1980 for the Democratic presidential nomination. Kennedy was a national figure of great renown. This is also not akin to Pat Buchanan challenging Bush for the GOP nomination in 1992. Buchanan had by that time established a loyal following as a conservative author and activist. In contrast, Dean Phillips is unknown outside of his district. But the one thing he may ultimately have in common with Ted Kennedy and Buchanan is that his challenge could weaken or soften up his party’s nominee enough for him to go down to defeat in the general election.
Let’s be clear that this does not mean the Democratic establishment has grown fearful enough of Joe Biden’s chances for re-election that they openly accept or welcome a challenge from a member of Congress. There is universal support for this president among institutional Democrats – or at least they claim so publicly despite polling that suggests Biden has much to fear on many fronts. The problem, not unlike on the other side of the aisle, is the disconnect between party leaders and rank-and-file Democrats, for whom the perilous state of Biden’s fitness for office is a defining issue. But the power brokers have supposedly concluded – shadow president Gavin Newsom aside – that the incumbent represents the most effective vehicle for maintaining their own power. It is not unlike the Trump/MAGA enthusiasts who stand distinctly apart from the more moderate GOP House leadership, though that could possibly change with an unquestioned conservative like Mike Johnson of Louisiana now running the show instead of California’s Kevin McCarthy.
Can Joe Biden Take the Heat?
The incumbent president already has enough challenges to deal with in his day job without having to concern himself with intra-party politics. Ground wars in Europe and the Middle East have turned him into a de facto wartime president. On the home front, he has been brought low by inflation, rising food and gas prices, a sieve-like border, and a stubborn crime wave hollowing out our inner cities. The political fallout is approval hovering at an unelectable 40% amid the widespread belief he is too old to serve another term. And on top of Phillips’ entry into the race, Biden must deal with the independent candidacies of RFK Jr. and far-left Ivy League Professor Cornel West, plus the specter of a challenge from the middle by the No Labels Party. Add all that on top of the Libertarian and Green candidates, both likely to pluck a percent or two of the vote, and the 2024 presidential ballot may more closely resemble that of a parliamentary system with multiple parties and candidates.
As he heads to New Hampshire to reportedly file to join the state’s Bidenless ballot Friday, Dean Phillips surely realizes that, even though there is almost no chance of him actually becoming his party’s nominee, he stands a real chance of being competitive or even winning in the Granite State. That is because the state has no intention of backing down and postponing its primary after the president unilaterally broke a decades-long tradition by announcing South Carolina would vote first, before New Hampshire, and thus decided not to place his name on the New Hampshire ballot. This means Biden must rely on a vigorous write-in campaign already being conducted by the Granite State Democratic Party in order to avoid the rank embarrassment of a sitting president losing the first contest of the presidential campaign to an unknown back-bencher. It would be yet more bad news for a president who has absorbed more than his share in recent weeks.