The Hall of Failed Presidential Candidates, Incumbent Challengers’ Wing, overspills its velvet-roped boundaries with polystyrene statues of politicians who fantasized that they could convince their party to nominate them in place of their party’s current president.
Viewing the reverse chronologically designed exhibit, we see the contenders from 2020, Bill Weld, Mark Sanford and Joe Walsh, who staged their futile campaigns against President Donald Trump. In the 1992 space, we find Pat Buchanan, who unsuccessfully challenged President George H.W. Bush, and in the 1980 section, we meet Edward Kennedy, who took on President Jimmy Carter. The most historically significant of the displays belongs to 1968 challenger Eugene McCarthy, who, like his other hallmates, didn’t win the nomination but was elemental in hounding the incumbent out of the race.
As varied as each of these candidacies were, every one of them was more about ideology than a lust for regicide. The sitting president from our party is wrong, the challengers said, and their candidacies would set politics and policy right, and they used the primary system to force the president to state his case to voters for reelection rather than giving him a rubber stamp victory.
But breaking harder than a Clayton Kershaw curveball from this distinguished pattern of presidential challengers is Dean Phillips, a three-term representative to Congress from Minnesota with name recognition near zero, who has staked out no distinguishing political position, who counts no actual congressional accomplishments, and who is about to run against President Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination.
What makes Phillips so unique, and maybe deserving of his own sub-wing of the Incumbent Challengers’ Wing, is that he has no real policy or political bones to pick with Biden.
Even Robert Kennedy Jr., who was running against Biden until recently decamping for an independent campaign, and Marianne Williamson take defining anti-Biden positions on major issues. Phillips adores Biden, whom he still calls a “wonderful and remarkable man” and the holder of an “extraordinary legacy.” Phillips has voted the Biden line in Congress roughly 100 percent of the time. In April 2021, after Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress, Phillips gushed on X, formerly Twitter, “I’m so grateful America elected Joe Biden to be our president.”
So what, you have every right to ask, motivates Phillips’ attempted Biden takedown? Speaking to “Meet the Press” in August, when Phillips was saying some Democrat should challenge Biden in 2024 but that he was not that Democrat, he said it was time for the country to “turn the page” on Biden, who should “pass the torch.” Interviewer Chuck Todd tried to help Phillips formulate his thinking by asking him if the real issue was age, a valid disqualifier for a candidacy in many instances. But Phillips categorically denied that as a reason. “This is all about how people feel,” he said, referring to the president’s “historically low approval numbers.”
That’s it, as far as the public record goes: Phillips wants Biden replaced because of his low approval numbers. But because no other Biden-worshipper with presidential ambitions — such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom or Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — is currently willing to enter the contest and pursue the same policies that have earned Biden such low approval numbers, Phillips thinks he should campaign for the job.
“A Vote For Me Is a Vote For Joe Biden, Only You Get Me, Not Joe,” is an unsatisfying Phillips’ campaign slogan, too long to fit on most bumpers and too retrograde to reach most voters, but it might be all he’s got.
That’s not the only backward aspect of the Phillips crusade. The most elemental point of primary challenges has been to get the incumbent to defend his policies to the party faithful. This is laudable in all cases. But Phillips attacks Biden on his low approval numbers, something the president is hard-pressed to easily turn around. If Phillips thinks Biden’s approval numbers portend his defeat at the hand of Donald Trump next year, which could very well be the case, Phillips must have plans to improve those numbers if he’s so lucky to take Biden’s place on the ballot but continue those policies. But if that were such a doable task, wouldn’t it make more sense to simply give his secret plan to Biden for execution?
If Phillips would simply level with voters and say what many think he’s saying — that we should turn the page on Biden because in the 30 months since he tweeted his unalloyed praise of him, the president has lost a step or two — then Biden could at least respond directly. Perhaps he could perform a set of mental gymnastics and clear a cognitive minefield to prove his readiness for another four years. Such a statement by Phillips would place the age issue at the center of the campaign, where it belongs. But Phillips, who has yet to make his mark in politics, lacks the presidential fortitude to go there. Replace somebody who isn’t popular with somebody who is unknown is his basic response. By constantly pointing to Biden’s low approval numbers, he can’t be said to be improving them. If anything, he’s helping Trump beat Biden.
It has always been something of a kamikaze mission to run against your party’s incumbent president. But most of these kamikaze candidates do so with the knowledge that while their candidacy might end their political careers, at least they’ll have the satisfaction of having moved their party to the left or right or having sunk their target.
In Phillips’ case, it’s hard to imagine a Democratic Party future for him. But it’s equally hard to imagine him sinking — or even dinging — Biden. So beyond the few weeks of campaign glory and television interviews, what’s in it for Phillips? Just about nothing beyond his asterisk wing in the Hall of Failed Presidential Candidates.
Most politicians have either family or friends to keep them from running for president. Send advice for the Phillips campaign to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My X feed and Bluesky account will not run this season. My RSS feed is dead, so it will run in Chicago only.