8 min read

The lone Democrat calling for Biden to pass the torch

Dean Phillips explains his “mission” for Biden to step aside “before it’s too late.”
The lone Democrat calling for Biden to pass the torch
Photo by Gage Skidmore

Good morning! It’s Monday, August 14, 2023. The 2024 elections are 449 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

In this morning’s newsletter: Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) has been making waves in Washington lately for his push for President Biden to step aside in 2024. I spoke to Phillips this weekend to learn more about why he believes Biden should pass the torch and whether he might wage a campaign against the president himself.

But first...

Two pieces of housekeeping: First off, I’m proud to share a piece of mine that’s being published elsewhere this morning. In the current Congress, there are 38 Jewish members. But only two of them are Republicans: Reps. David Kustoff (R-TN) and Max Miller (R-OH).

I profiled Kustoff and Miller in a freelance piece for Jewish Insider. Click here or below to read my piece, which includes interviews with both congressmen, their rabbis, and other experts on the unique role Kustoff and Miller hold in Washington and the history of Jewish Republicans in Congress:

‘Tip of the spear’: Kustoff, Miller carry Jewish GOP torch in Congress
With Israel becoming an increasingly partisan issue in Washington, the unique role held by Kustoff and Miller has only grown more visible in recent weeks

Secondly, Wake Up To Politics will be taking a quick break this week. I’ll be back in your inbox next Monday. Thank you, as always, for your understanding.

And now, my interview with Rep. Dean Phillips...

“Horrifying”: Fearing loss to Trump, Phillips calls for Biden to stand down

Depending on the poll, most surveys show somewhere between 40-50% of Democrats do not want Joe Biden to be their standard-bearer in the 2024 election.

If that math held true in Washington, around 100 Democratic members of Congress would be urging Biden to step aside. Instead, only one Democratic lawmaker has been making that case publicly: Rep. Dean Phillips, a third-term congressman from Minnesota.

“I believe it’s in the country’s best interest for the president to pass the torch to a new generation and open the stage to a number of Democrats to compete in the primary so that we can choose the person best prepared to win the next election,” Phillips told me in an interview. “And the data right now does not indicate that that is President Biden.”

Phillips wants to be clear: he likes Biden. When asked how he would grade the Biden presidency, Phillips hesitated for a moment before answering with an A-minus. “I think he’s done a darn good job,” Phillips said, calling the president “a good man and a compassionate man and a passionate man” and praising his tenure as “the most productive administration in my lifetime.”

But the Minnesota congressman is skeptical that Biden, 80, could beat Donald Trump in a rematch next November. Reeling off several statistics on the current state of a Trump-Biden race, Phillips said that electability was the main concern fueling his full-court press for Biden to call it quits.

“Right now, 55% of Democrats in the most recent New York Times poll want an alternative to the president in the primary,” Phillips explained. “They’re saying they’re concerned about his age, they’re concerned about his ability to beat Donald Trump. And all of that is supported by the most recent data. The most recent poll from Echelon indicates that in the four swing states that are going to decide the election, that Trump is beating Biden by seven points. And when you add Cornel West, the Green Party candidate, in the mix, it’s eight points. So people are rightfully concerned, and I’m among them.”

Asked if he believed Biden is physically and mentally fit to serve as president, Phillips offered a morbid warning — but no direct answer. “I think the best way to answer your question is, look at the two leading candidates, both GOP and Democratic, and look at an actuarial table that insurance companies use to predict how long people of certain ages will live,” he said. “Take a look at that and if that doesn’t make anybody concerned, once again, I’m afraid we’re living in different environments.”

Phillips, 54, has been urging Biden to stand down for more than a year now, but said his “mission” has grown more urgent due to recent developments. “The numbers and the special counsel [appointed Friday to investigate Hunter Biden] together are, for lack of a better word, extraordinarily consequential,” he said, “and, I think, horrifying in combination.” (Phillips is also one of few Democratic lawmakers to highlight the Hunter Biden probe. Although he said the younger Biden had committed “unethical if not illegal behavior,” Phillips said he does “not believe the president is corrupt” and his concerns are more limited to appearances. “It’s not what’s real, it’s how people feel,” he added.)

Phillips is considering challenging Biden himself — he met with donors in New York City last week to discuss a potential campaign — but the way he tells it, there are two paths he’d prefer before getting to that point.

In his best-case scenario, Phillips hopes Biden will “pass the torch proactively,” creating a wide-open Democratic field before the primaries ramp up. If that doesn’t happen, the Minnesotan wants a more prominent Democrat to challenge Biden, someone with “significant name recognition, organization, institutional support, and access to the extraordinary amount of money necessary to mount a formidable campaign.”

Only if neither of those scenarios pan out did Philips say he would consider his own run. “I’m keeping that door cracked as a possibility,” the congressman said. Phillips told me that this whole process would have to take place over the next month or so; if no one else has jumped in by then, he said he would begin considering a run for the White House himself.

He may soon have to ramp up his campaign planning: by all appearances, Phillips’ first two options are not poised to come to fruition. Biden has already announced his re-election bid and evinces no signs that he plans to prematurely end it. No other Democratic governors or lawmakers have said they believe the president should retire, much less indicated that they plan to mount a primary challenge.

In a sign of how fraught these discussions are within the party, Phillips told me that he had approached multiple potential candidates urging them to run, but they have asked him not to even share their names due to worries “about the Democratic machine.”

But he said their identities wouldn’t surprise anybody. “There are about five or six names that are often floated right now,” Phillips said, “particularly some governors, moderate governors in swing states, that are strong, have demonstrated the ability to win in purple states — the very ones we need — and more importantly have youth on their side.”

But practically all of the Democrats mentioned as possible candidates — including Govs. Gavin Newsom (CA), J.B. Pritzker (IL), Josh Shapiro (PA), Wes Moore (MD), and Sens. Cory Booker (NJ), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Raphael Warnock (GA), and Elizabeth Warren (MA) — have endorsed Biden’s re-election campaign and signed on to his national advisory board. The other frequently cited Biden alternative, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (MI), is one of the president’s seven campaign co-chairs.

If Phillips were to run himself, he would lack the name ID of a Whitmer or a Newsom — but he would bring one of the other factors he said was critical to launching a White House run: access to money. With an estimated net worth of $123.8 million, according to OpenSecrets, Phillips is the seventh-wealthiest current member of Congress.

That fortune — partially derived from his family’s distillery company, which he led as president and CEO after completing his MBA, as well as from the gelato company Talenti, which he once co-owned — would likely allow Phillips to self-fund his own campaign.

Phillips has repeatedly been ranked as one of the most bipartisan members of Congress, and a potential presidential campaign would likely center around that record. Asked if there were specific issues he hoped a primary challenger would differ with Biden on, Phillips again praised Biden’s legislative record — but said a challenger should aim to foster “cultural unity” and a spirit of bipartisanship.

“I’m not saying he’s failed at that,” Phillips said. “The country sure has. But I do think that the first task of any new president, from either side of the aisle, has got to be thoughtful and very intentional restoration of unity.” He cited assembling a bipartisan Cabinet or hosting monthly bipartisan dinners at the White House as possible ways to inspire such unity. (Those ideas ring similar to ones proposed by No Labels, the centrist group that has been floating a third-party presidential bid, but Phillips has ruled out supporting such an effort in other interviews.)

Phillips said other House Democrats share his concerns, even if they have not joined him in airing them publicly; he also called worries that a contested primary would hurt Democrats in the general election “misleading.” Phillips’ efforts have earned him rumors that he too might face a primary challenge, which he told me do not concern him. He said speaking out was “clearing” his conscience: “I will sleep well knowing I tried my best.”

“We have two choices: put on blinders, plug our ears, hold our breath, or we can take some action,” Phillips added.

“It’s not about me, it’s about winning,” the congressman said, before going on to evoke one of the modern Democrat’s most traumatic memories. “I woke up the morning after the 2016 election. My daughters were in tears and I promised them I would do something. And I do not want to wake up the morning after the 2024 election with that same feeling, and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing right now. It’s not comfortable and it’s not appreciated by all but it’s exactly the conversation that we need to have now before it’s too late.”

More news to know.

  • A grand jury in Georgia is expected to indict Donald Trump as soon as tomorrow for his efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 presidential results. Catch up on the latest via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
  • Hunter Biden is now likely to stand trial after his plea deal unraveled and the prosecutor investigating him was elevated to a special counsel. Read more from CNN
  • Dozens of news organizations are raising press freedom concerns after police officers in Marion, Kansas raided the office of a local newspaper. NPR has the story

The day ahead.

At the White House: President Biden will return to the White House from Delaware and have lunch with Vice President Harris.

At the Capitol: Both chambers of Congress are on recess until September.

At the Supreme Court: The justices are off until October.

Thanks for reading.

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