Nashua, New Hampshire
Joe Biden likes to say that “democracy is on the ballot” in 2024. Yet Joe Biden was not on the ballot on Tuesday in New Hampshire. In his absence, a fifty-five-year-old former congressman called Dean Phillips, who started his campaign just ten weeks ago, won 20 percent of the vote.
Biden still won easily as more than 65 percent of Democratic voters wrote his name in. But the president’s ducking of New Hampshire, and Phillips’s sudden emergence, says a lot about the sorry state of Democratic politics and the gnawing fear that Biden is going to lose to Donald Trump in November.
The re-nomination of a commander-in-chief is usually little more than a formality. Lyndon B. Johnson was forced to step aside in 1968 after facing a challenge from Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire, but the last time an elected sitting first-term president was not his party’s candidate was in 1856, when Franklin Pierce was brushed aside for James Buchanan.
There’s nothing normal about Biden’s presidency, however. Last year, at his behest, the Democratic National Committee announced a major shake-up of its primary system, stripping New Hampshire of its “first-in-the-nation” status and making South Carolina the opening primary. The official reason was that South Carolina is more racially diverse and more representative of the nation. The truth is that the Democratic leadership knows Biden is unpopular and potentially vulnerable to a challenge.
New Hampshire rejected the DNC’s change, insisting it would hold its primary before anyone else and citing a clause in its state law which compelled it to do so. The DNC responded by ruling that New Hampshire’s vote would not count and ordered presidential candidates to “take all steps possible not to participate.” Various long-shot candidates, such as the spiritualist TV star Marianne Williamson, ignored that and ran anyway. But it was Phillips, a centrist dad on an eccentric mission, who stood out.
Phillips is more machine politician than maverick. His hair is coiffed, his suits shine and he talks as if he’s the sweetest man in America; Ted Lasso with a Minnesota accent. “I love you guys,” he tells audiences, dripping in earnestness. “This is so cool.” He says he wants to repair America “one handshake, one high-five and one hug at a time.”
Americans aren’t necessarily allergic to that kind of schmaltz. For millennials and Gen Zers, corniness is kindness and Phillips speaks to their obsessions with mental health and anguish at the nastiness of the age of Trump. “I want to be your mentor,” Dean tells them. “I want to be your friend.” He also taps into a Democratic longing for the hopey-changey mood that Barack Obama once gave the party, something utterly lost under Biden.
Phillips’s backstory is a political consultant’s dream. His father, Artie Pfefer, was killed in Vietnam when Dean was six months old. His mother then married the heir to the Phillips Distilling Company. He joined the family firm, eventually becoming its CEO, then set up his coffee-shop chain Penny’s.
In 2018, he won Minnesota’s 3rd congressional district, the first Democrat to do so since 1961. He got into politics because his daughter — “who’s a gay woman” — was upset by the election of Trump. He discovered his lead, he suggests, on January 6, 2021, when he was locked in the Capitol as Trump supporters ran riot.
Phillips presents himself as a great uniter. He denounces the “angertainment” of cable news as well as the “cult of personality” around Trump and Biden. Whereas Biden condemns “MAGA extremists,” Dean says that the Trump supporters he encounters are “the most hospitable, friendly, decent people you could ever hope to meet.”
He wraps up his speeches with a saccharine story about Emily, a Democratic woman who drives a Prius, and Dave, a pick-up truck-driving Trumper, who have dinner together and end up hugging.
“We’re just getting started,” Phillips tweeted, as the results came in on Tuesday. “See y’all in South Carolina.”
One of his chief backers is Andrew Yang, a quirky former presidential candidate. Yang, whose old campaign team is running Phillips’s effort, quit the race four years ago after he got only 2.8 percent of the vote in New Hampshire. He insists, however, that Dean is ‘the man for the moment’ in 2024. “He’s a steady hand but also someone who will be with us a while and you’re not worried about their mental or physical vitality.”
Yang and Phillips argue that the Democratic establishment is choking off his challenge because it can’t accept that “Biden is going to get creamed” by Trump in November. Lots of New Hampshirites seem to agree, even if they didn’t vote for him.
Phillips lacks the radical edge that might help him fire up the American left. He supports “Medicare for All” and has a cuddly plan to create “American Dream accounts” for every child. At a rally in Nashua on Saturday, however, his mask slipped a little as a heckler demanded that he denounce “Israel’s war crimes.”
“Just let him be obnoxious,” said Phillips, who is Jewish. “This is how twenty-first-century politics works these days.” On Monday night he snapped at journalists who asked if he
was “splitting the vote” for Biden. “I’m only doing this to defeat Donald Trump… You’re doing your jobs but you’re not asking the questions that Americans give a shit about.”
Short of a miracle, Phillips is not going to unseat Biden through conventional voting, but Democratic anxiety about Trump’s strength and Biden’s weakness are likely to intensify. By August, when the party holds its national convention, the president’s cognitive decline may have become too obvious for even the party establishment to ignore. Everybody knows that Kamala Harris, his vice president, is hugely unpopular. The party might try to shoehorn in Gavin Newsom, the California governor, or the Democrats might just fall back on Phillips, the man who doesn’t terrify the establishment.
On Saturday night, Trump mischievously suggested Democrats “should vote for the congressman just to send a signal.” Phillips replied: “Careful what you wish for, Donald.”