Democrats should listen to Dean Phillips, or catastrophe may await
U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, pictured here in a file photo. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
Democrats have their eyes closed and are silently walking toward a cliff.
President Joe Biden has accomplished more important progressive policy priorities than any president since Lyndon Johnson, but in a recent poll he’s running even with the thrice indicted would-be authoritarian Donald Trump.
Given the Electoral College tilt toward Republicans, that translates into a Trump victory.
I shouldn’t have to tell you what that would mean — Trump would pardon himself, arrest his foes and create an authoritarian machine. In the third indictment, the one accusing Trump of trying to topple the government to stay in power, an unindicted co-conspirator is said to have responded to the threat of people marching in the streets by saying, “That’s why we have an Insurrection Act.” I.e.: We will use the United States military against American citizens.
This is what’s motivating U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips to grab fellow Democrats by the lapels and shake them awake by fueling speculation that he’s considering running himself if no one else will, and I’m coming around to his point.
During a Sunday appearance on “Face the Nation,” Phillips laid out the scenario of an unpopular incumbent and the ruthless authoritarian. “The consequences, I believe, are going to be disastrous. So my call is to those who are well-positioned, well-prepared, have good character and competency, they know who they are, to jump in, because Democrats and the country need competition.”
If you’re unfamiliar with Phillips, you might think he was just another dilettante desperate for attention, which accurately describes a lot of Washington, but I’ve never had that impression of him.
Crucially, Phillips had a whole life before politics. After his father died in Vietnam, his mother married Eddie Phillips. Dean Phillips became CEO of the family liquor business, and then made more money out on his own. He raised two daughters and was active in philanthropy before he was elected to Congress in 2018. He was a political novice, but became the first Democrat to win in the suburban 3rd District in more than half a century. He’s had a rapid rise in Washington, but if and when he leaves, Phillips will go back to a charmed life.
In other words, he has less to lose by going against the Democratic establishment.
I spoke to someone in Phillips’ orbit who is familiar with his thinking, and this person likened the current moment to the 2016 election cycle, when Democrats were told to get on board with Hillary Clinton, who was a sort of quasi-incumbent.
“She was a historically unpopular nominee and there wasn’t much conversation about whether it would work out. Lo and behold, it didn’t work out,” said the source.
The party establishment assured everyone that America would not elect a game show host who bragged about sexual assault. But Clinton did not excite enough voters and was weak with key voter segments in the Midwest, and the rest is history.
Biden is especially weak with an increasingly important set of voters for Democrats: Young Americans. First Millennials and now Gen Z have buoyed Democrats in the face of losses among non-college white people and older voters. But a Biden candidacy is shaping up poorly with this demographic, the New York Times recently reported, citing its own recent poll:
“Just 1% of 18-to-29-year-olds strongly approve of the way Mr. Biden is handling his job. And 94% of Democrats under 30 said they wanted another candidate to run two years from now.”
The elephant in the room — or donkey, as it were — is Biden’s age. Biden will be 82 if he’s reelected.
“You can only be an airline pilot to 65. It’s not crazy we would consider someone’s health and well-being when we’re talking about the person who is going to be the leader of the free world,” said the Democratic source close to Phillips.
Even setting aside the question of whether Biden is capable enough to be president until he’s 86, the odds of a health event during the next year are not infinitesimal.
What happens if Biden is incapacitated a year or 15 months from now? What then?
The obvious answer is that Vice President Kamala Harris would be elevated. But her numbers — fairly or not — are even worse than Biden’s.
Which means it’s time for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, heck, even Gov. Tim Walz and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, to think about jumping in.
We usually think of competitive primaries as bad for presidents — Minnesota’s own Sen. Eugene McCarthy forced LBJ out of the White House in 1968, and Patrick Buchanan probably fatally hurt President George H.W. Bush in 1992. In this case, however, a vigorous campaign would give Biden a chance to prove his mettle, which would reassure voters and give him a chance to connect with young people. Or, Democratic voters — you know, the ones who are supposed to be making the choice — would select someone else, which is what self-government is about.
Get ready for this response from the Democratic establishment, much of which has financial and political motives for defending the White House: Shut up and clap louder for Biden.
It’s a common refrain in many situations, and it’s always a signal to me that we should do the opposite.
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