Dean Phillips Gets His ‘I-Told-You-So’ Moment

Nashua, N.H. On a chilly Election Day on January 23, representative Dean Phillips (D., Minn.) was setting electoral expectations low. If he could clock in twenty percent of the New Hampshire Democratic Party's unsanctioned presidential primary vote, he theorized, then he'd have a real shot at being competitive against the incumbent he believed to be too old and too weak to beat Donald Trump in November.

"Twenties would be a great start," Phillips, who had launched his long-shot campaign against Joe Biden in October, told National Review at an elementary school polling site in Nashua. "I think that will introduce this campaign and me to the country. I don’t think certain outlets that have been able to ignore me will be able to any longer — and that’s the beginning. I’m gonna pound the pavement in South Carolina then hit the Michigan Super Tuesday, March 5. And I want to get to the point where the country knows me."

He maintained that privately, House Democrats were cheering him on: "I can’t name names because I don’t want to out them. That would be a miscarriage of trust."

Things didn't go quite as he'd hoped — even with Biden relying on a write-in campaign after pushing the Democratic National Committee to grant South Carolina the Granite State's first-in-the-nation primary status. The independently wealthy Democratic congressman notched 19.6 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, but never gained steam in the polls or in primary contests. He dropped out after Super Tuesday.

"I had to do so because there was no way to raise the resources necessary to carry on any kind of meaningful campaign because that’s how the system prevents challenges to an incumbent," Phillips told National Review in April. "I would have liked to, and I still think that would have been the appropriate strategy." But he ultimately suspended his campaign because he "did not want to risk a long campaign that would undermine not just Democrats' chances but the country’s chances of preventing a Trump presidency."

Six months later, Phillips must be feeling an indescribable sense of vindication after watching his former primary competitor suffer one of the most disastrous presidential debates in modern memory — a crash and burn he had predicted for during his short-lived presidential run.

"I think his weakness predated my entrance," Phillips told CNN in December. "By exposing him now, is that not a service to the Democratic Party? Because he's going to be exposed on a much more difficult stage in a number of months if he becomes the nominee.

Phillips hasn't said "I told you so" — at least not yet  — opting instead to invoke Gandhi in a day-after social media post: "Speak only if it improves upon the silence." But he didn't need to say anything at all. The moment spoke for itself. The very same Democrats who spent months savaging Phillips in the press are reaping what they've sown after years pretending away voters' long-running concerns about Biden's age and fitness to serve.

Saying What Everyone’s Thinking

When news broke on May 3 that Henry Cuellar (D., Tex.) was being indicted on federal bribery charges, a familiar Democratic voice chimed in to stir the pot.

"While the bar for Federal indictment is high, trust in our government is low," Phillips wrote in a social-media post that day, becoming the first House Democrat to call for his resignation. "That's why office holders and candidates under indictment should resign or end their campaigns, including Sen. Bob Menendez, Donald Trump, & Rep. Henry Cuellar."

That post-presidential campaign proclamation was par for the course for Phillips.

Anytime intra-party controversy rattles Democrats on Capitol Hill, you can often count on Phillips to say what most of his colleagues are quietly complaining about behind closed doors. In April 2023, for example, Phillips was one of the few Democrats to openly call for the late Senator Dianne Feinstein's (D., Calif.) resignation during her battle with shingles and obvious mental decline.

But he is of course best known for his early and very public opposition to Biden's reelection campaign. In July 2022, Phillips said "I think the country would be well-served by a new generation of compelling, well-prepared, dynamic Democrats who step up" in Biden's place. Last year, he became the only congressional Democrat to start signaling on live television that the Democratic party ought to nominate a younger, stronger candidate to challenge Biden for the nomination, preferably a moderate, Midwestern Democratic governor.

When no one took the bait, Phillips took the leap. He kicked off his presidential run by saying he believed Biden was a "wonderful and remarkable man" and a decent president who "saved" the country from Trump, but simply too old and too weak to beat Trump. He grounded his campaign in wanting to "strengthen" Biden ahead of an expected rematch against Trump. But as the campaign heated up, his criticisms grew sharper — jeopardizing his entire political future in the process. He called Biden a threat to democracy.

He was predictably chewed up and spit out by a hostile press that never gave him the time of day. The media settled on the word "quixotic" to describe his campaign. "There are disincentives for certain media outlets to suppress certain candidates and incentives to highlight others, and especially when there’s an incumbent president," Phillips told NR in Nashua on January 23.

Biden's campaign also ignored him. "I tried contacting them twice, and he would not take the call and I’ve not had a single conversation with any of the Cabinet members or the White House," Phillips added. (That changed the day he suspended his campaign, when Biden called him and both of his daughters and was "gracious" and "thoughtful" in his remarks.)

Public Enemy Number One

Immediately after launching his campaign, Phillips became public enemy number one within the House Democratic caucus. "If you're a Democrat, you respect the process. He's not respecting the process," Representative Jim Clyburn (D., S.C.) told National Review in November.

Other Democrats simply treated him as if he didn't exist, even as many of them expressed similar trepidation about Biden's political viability behind closed doors. Back in December, some House Democrats expressed alarm to NR about Biden's appearance at White House holiday parties, with one member going so far as to suggest that the 81-year-old incumbent may not "make it" to Election Day.

And yet none of these House Democrats would admit as much on the record. As they learned from Phillips's short-lived presidential run, acknowledging concerns about Biden's age is the surest way to torch your reputation.

When Phillips returned to the U.S. Capitol on February 6, his first time attending a House floor vote in months, he was greeted with ice-cold glares from his Democratic colleagues. He received a much warmer reception from House Republicans, many of whom welcomed him back to the chamber right side of the aisle, handshakes, hugs, and back-slaps.

"The overwhelming majority of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle have been extraordinarily thoughtful, generous, and celebratory," Phillips told NR two months later. "Only a handful that said things that I thought were quite personal and have kind of kept their heads down when I passed in the hall."

Congressional Democrats who still can't bear to look Phillips in the eye won't have to deal with him Capitol Hill for much longer. After suspending a longshot bid against President Joe Biden, Phillips is biding his time until his final term is up.

What's next for this third-term Democrat? "I don’t know. I’m thinking about that right now," Phillips said in April. "I want to stay proximate to public service and particularly electoral reform: open Primaries, gerrymandering rank choice voting, encouraging primary participation, encouraging young people to consider careers in public service in all shapes and forms".

"So I want to play some role in that in that," he added. "Doing so while a member of this body is almost impossible, and that’s the great irony."

The lesson from all this isn't that this Minnesota Democrat's campaign was ever going to gain real momentum. He had low name ID and waited until late October to launch a presidential challenge against a sitting incumbent who had the backing of the entire party establishment — without any serious endorsements of his own. His message hardly differed from Biden's, and process stories over staffing shakeups distracted from his campaign. Some of town halls descended into complete chaos, and one of his pre-New Hampshire primary campaign events went viral when zero prospective voters showed up. He sometimes came across as incredibly self-important, like when he characterized his longshot campaign to the Wall Street Journal's Molly Ball as the "most important act of philanthropy I've ever conducted."

Yet he had the political courage to at least try — and for that, he will be remembered.

If Trump wins, he'll have the last laugh. Not that he's gloating publicly – at least not yet. Asked back in April to reflect on his short-lived and longshot presidential campaign, Phillips told National Review that the word "paradox" came to mind: "An extraordinary restoration of faith in the American people and an extraordinary erosion of faith in the political duopoly."

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Dean Phillips Gets His ‘I-Told-You-So’ Moment

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