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A ‘Generic Democrat’ Can Win. Can Dean Phillips?
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A ‘Generic Democrat’ Can Win. Can Dean Phillips?

On the trail with the Minnesota longshot trying to primary the president.

U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips holds a rally outside of the New Hampshire Statehouse after handing over his declaration of candidacy form for President to the New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan, on October 27, 2023 in Concord, New Hampshire. (Photo by Gaelen Morse/Getty Images)

HANOVER, N.H.—As a general rule, politicians want to stand out. But early on in his slapdash, insurgent presidential candidacy, Rep. Dean Phillips wants you to know he’s happy blending in with the crowd.

“I’ve never aspired to be generic,” the Minnesota Democrat tells the hundred-odd bright and polite Ivy League kids who piled into a small auditorium at Dartmouth College on Monday night. “But I’ll be your generic Democrat if that means I can defeat Donald Trump much more ably than President Biden can.”

It’s no secret: Democrats are worried Joe Biden is in trouble. His approval rating is mired in the mid-30s, the lowest mark at this point in a presidential term since Jimmy Carter. His party is deeply divided over his staunch support for Israel in its war against Hamas, and he has no real way of assuaging voters’ biggest concern about his reelection: He’s just too old. One New York Times poll this month found Biden trailing Donald Trump across six battleground states by an average of 4 points—even as Trump trailed an unnamed “Democratic candidate” by 8 points.

And yet there’s been little organized effort—or even public conversation—about the possibility of replacing Biden atop the Democratic ticket. He’s the incumbent, and modern political parties consider it their job to re-elect incumbents. And who would replace him, anyway? California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has presided over a homelessness crisis and the breakdown of social order in his cities? Biden’s vice president, Kamala Harris, who flamed out of the 2020 primary and is just as unpopular as he is? Better to stick with the devil you know.

Dean Phillips disagrees. The multimillionaire gelato baron and three-term congressman is consumed with a dread of seeing Trump back in office—his surprise upset of Hillary Clinton was what made Phillips decide he needed to get involved in politics in the first place. And after spending months pleading for other Democrats to step in and challenge Biden, he ultimately decided he’d do it himself.

“I have great respect for President Biden,” he says at Dartmouth. “I believe he was the only man, the only candidate who could have beaten Donald Trump in 2020. I also believe that he’s probably the only Democrat who could lose—and probably will—to Donald Trump in 2024.”

“This is not a campaign of destruction against the president,” he continues. “To the contrary, it is a campaign to prevent the destruction of democracy.”

Phillips, 54, is a cheerful and warm public speaker, although his remarks in Dartmouth tack so thoroughly to the center—constant “we’re not so different” anti-partisan bromides, asides about his GOP friends in Congress, stories about conservatives with whom he’s found meaningful common ground—that it’s odd when he bristles at a questioner who describes him as a moderate. “I’m a progressive,” he shoots back. “If I’m branded as a centrist or a moderate—probably because I’m a white man—I can’t do anything about it.”

What he is, Phillips insists, is pragmatic. “This notion that if you’re a Democrat, you cannot talk about how absolutely out-of-control our fiscal management is,” he starts. “Why, as a Democrat, can I not say that we need border security and we need law enforcement, and the community begging the most for more safety and more police officers are actually my black communities, who are furious that somehow this whole thing has been hijacked into some nonsensical debate about whether or not we should be funding police?”

At Dartmouth, the whole production goes down pretty well: An early Jeb-ish “you can clap” warms into real applause by about halfway through.

“I was actually very skeptical of him—like, why is this guy running?” freshman Noah Amidon tells The Dispatch afterward. “But I think that he’s a very strong candidate who does represent what most Americans, what most Democrats actually want—moving us away from polarization and just getting back down to common sense logic.”

But winning over a room of earnest young aspiring pols at the most center-left of the Ivies is one thing. To have even a prayer of posting a strong showing in New Hampshire, Phillips will need a sharp, convincing message about why Biden doesn’t deserve to be renominated. Oddly, that argument barely crops up in his Dartmouth remarks.

There is, of course, Biden’s age. Phillips told Forbes this week that he shares the concerns of the 74 percent of voters who—according to one recent NBC News poll—have either “major” or “moderate” concerns about Biden’s physical and mental fitness going into a potential second term: “There’s a reason, because we’re human beings, that we don’t generally see people in that age group in significant leadership positions.”

But the policy punches he does throw are weak and unfocused, with Phillips at times seeming more annoyed with the left wing of his own party than with the president he’s running against. “Defund the police” was never a Joe Biden slogan. And his digs at the president’s “Bidenomics” agenda, “which represents high inflation and high prices,” are even more confusing, given that Phillips voted to pass each of the president’s major pieces of economic legislation.

There’s a reason Phillips is launching his long-shot bid here in New Hampshire. Biden infuriated many in the state earlier this year when he spearheaded changes to the Democratic primary calendar that launched South Carolina—the first state he won in 2020—to the head of the line. New Hampshire state law, however, dictates that its primary goes first—so Democrats here are planning to hold it first come what may. (Iowa, which has long gone ahead of New Hampshire but holds caucuses rather than primaries, doesn’t count.)

That means the New Hampshire primary, which is likely to be held in late January, won’t be officially countenanced by the Democratic National Committee—which in turn means Biden won’t appear on the ballot. It’s a lot easier to beat even a very good opponent if he simply doesn’t show up to play.

There’s certainly no guarantee Biden loses in New Hampshire, though. Biden allies in the state have begun organizing a write-in campaign to support the president—an attempt, they say, to protect the state’s reputation. New Hampshire takes its primary very seriously; it doesn’t want to hand a gold star to an unserious candidate for silly procedural reasons.

One of those spearheading this effort is Kathy Sullivan, the former chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. She tells The Dispatch she was “very angry” when Biden demoted New Hampshire. “Of course, you can’t maintain the same level of anger over a period of months,” she concedes. “So for me, it sort of subsided to annoyance that I have to do this.”

“But at the same time, I think Joe Biden’s been a really good president,” she adds. “To do anything to undermine Joe Biden’s candidacy is biting off your nose to spite your face, if you’re a Democrat.”

In other states, Phillips’ reception has been downright hostile. Last month, South Carolina Democratic Chair Christale Spain told Politico that Phillips’ campaign was “a distraction,” and that “any serious Democratic candidate … would understand that black voters in South Carolina have been the backbone of the Democratic Party.”

How widespread is that sentiment about Phillips? I texted Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina native, to ask. “Who?” Seawright replied, adding an eyeroll emoji.

Phillips’ bid has also prompted some gloomy denunciations from Democrats in his own state of Minnesota—where he was previously a star, having flipped a longtime GOP district on his ascent to Congress. “I’m obviously disappointed that he’s decided to, you know, squander his political capital on a wild goose chase,” Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chair Ken Martin said after Phillips’ announcement. “This is a decidedly purple district that will take a lot of time, energy, and money to defend and to keep in Democratic hands.”

When I ask Phillips about this party resistance, he replies that “There’s a massive operation designed to undermine right now rather than promote thoughtful alternatives. Which I think is the most hypocritical, bizarre outcome of a significant American party you could possibly imagine.”

Watching him speak, it’s hard to avoid the sense that Phillips has followed the logic of that “generic Democrat” poll exactly far enough to conclude that some other Democrat ought to run, and no farther. Why should this man—not a generic Democrat, but this particular Democrat, be the president? “I’m running for president,” Phillips says, “because I deeply believe that we can get this done and we can have some fun and bring a lot of optimism and hope back to a country that is really in need of it right now.”

It’s even fair to wonder whether this campaign is actually an attempt to become president at all, or just to try to embarrass Biden enough in an early state or two to make him drop out. Phillips repeatedly references Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 upstart primary challenge to President Lyndon Johnson: McCarthy didn’t go the distance, but his strong showing in the New Hampshire primary was enough to get Johnson to call it quits.

“I’m in this to win it,” Phillips tells reporters after his remarks. “I intend to—but if that opens the door to someone who is better able to do it, and voters decide that, I will get behind that person in the same way I’m getting behind my own campaign.”

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.