How Democrats could be playing into Donald Trump’s hands

Last week, President Joe Biden got another primary challenger.

He already had a few in the form of author and new-age woo-woo guru Marianne Williamson and Democratic scion (now an Independent) lawyer turned anti-vaccine crackpot and Tucker Carlson stan Robert F Kennedy Jr.

But this one has had a legitimate political career and is a card-carrying Democrat who has flown with Mr Biden aboard Air Force One.

This latest challenger is The Honourable Rep Dean Phillips, Member of Congress. Since 2019, Mr Phillips has represented Minnesota’s third congressional district, which encompasses suburban and exurban communities outside Minneapolis.

Mr Phillips flipped a GOP-held seat in the 2018 midterms, knocking off a 10-year incumbent with a largely self-funded campaign where he drew notice for driving a restored milk truck around his soon-to-be district.

Dean Phillips speaks after filing the paperwork to put his name on the ballot for the state’s primary election outside the statehouse in Concord, New Hampshire (REUTERS)
Dean Phillips speaks after filing the paperwork to put his name on the ballot for the state’s primary election outside the statehouse in Concord, New Hampshire (REUTERS)

Since then, he’s won re-election twice over, with the second re-election victory coming with the aid of a district drawn far more favourably than the one he first won election to represent. And despite coming to Congress representing a nominally moderate suburban district, he has racked up an typical Democratic voting record, aligning with Mr Biden 100 per cent of the time, according to ABC News’ FiveThirtyEight.

But even with a markedly liberal voting record that puts him in a similar category as New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Washington’s Pramila Jayapal, Mr Phillips has not developed a reputation as a progressive bomb thrower. Instead, he is known among his colleagues and among your correspondent’s colleagues in the Washington press corps as a par excellence example of the “Minnesota nice” stereotype.

Yet from a historical perspective, there’s nothing “nice” about a sitting member of the House launching a primary campaign against a sitting president from his own party.

Since the mid to late 20th century, primary challenges have been singularly bad for incumbent presidents seeking a second term.

It was another Minnesotan, Senator Eugene McCarthy, whose intent to take on then-president Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 primary led to Mr Johnson famously standing down rather than seeking a second term, four years after he’d won a massive landslide victory over Republican Senator Barry Goldwater.

Just over a decade later, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy’s fight against 39th President Jimmy Carter weakened Mr Carter enough that he became easy pickings for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, leading to what many political scholars consider the end of the New Deal-era Democratic coalition and the start of a swing among non-college-educated voters to the GOP side.

Twelve years after that, paleoconservative firebrand Pat Buchanan’s surprise New Hampshire primary showing against President George HW Bush foreshadowed the 41st president’s eventual loss to Bill Clinton in the 1992 general election.

So why would Mr Phillips tempt fate when the risk of bringing down Mr Biden would be another Donald Trump presidency?

Simply put, he believes it’s necessary because Mr Biden’s poll numbers are bad, and because he doesn’t think he’ll lose.

He’s seen the polling showing that most Americans don’t want to see a Biden-Trump general election for the second quadrennium in a row. He sees Mr Biden’s approval ratings, the lack of enthusiasm for the 46th president among young voters, and the not-insignificant number of voters who believe Mr Biden’s status as the first-ever octogenarian to seek a second term as president is a concern because he’ll be closer to a nonagenarian by the time he finishes that second term — if he finishes it.

And because no one else has stepped up to challenge him, Mr Phillips is putting himself forward, either to supplant Mr Biden as the party’s nominee, or supposedly to strengthen him by forcing him to campaign for his party’s nomination one more time.

The response from Mr Biden’s camp has been muted, to say the least.

Although his re-election operation put out a fundraising appeal from Minnesota Governor Tim Waltz and the White House announced plans for official travel to the North Star State this week, Mr Biden’s political operation has kept up the same low-key tone it has used since the president announced his re-election bid in April.

The thinking among his brain trust is that there’s no reason to elevate Mr Phillips by engaging with him as a serious candidate, particular in New Hampshire, where the president’s heavy hand led the party to strip the Granite State of its first-in-the-nation primary status in favour of South Carolina.

That attitude — born out of the confidence that comes from incumbency — is also why Mr Biden has avoided engaging with the press since taking office outside of controlled settings, or in situations where his staff control which reporters get the microphone to ask questions.

It’s why he’s had precious few press conferences, preferring instead to engage with the small “pool” that accompanies him to events at the White House and around the world, and why he’s given almost no interviews to print reporters and television correspondents not known to be friendly.

Sadly, the president and the would-be challenger are both wrong.

Mr Phillips and Mr Biden have both failed to account for the polarised media environment of Trump-era, post-Covid America rife with bad faith actors who weaponise every gaffe the president might make — or deceptively cut video to create their own gaffes when none present themselves.

If he doesn’t take questions, the same people use footage of him walking away and turn that into a negative story about him.

The White House has chosen to limit his engagements to minimise opportunities for political damage, but they’ve failed to grasp that in 2023, controlling the narrative means being omnipresent. It’s why no-experience candidates like Vivek Ramaswamy and current Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have made their marks in far more seasoned political fields. And it’s one reason Mr Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 — he routinely answered questions, she didn’t.

Mr Phillips’ calculations when launching his primary bid appear to have been based off a dataset that ended in 2012, before Russia’s weaponisation of social media helped boost Mr Trump into the White House with the aid of Ms Clinton’s inept campaigning.

He appears to have missed the 2016 and 2020 cycles, when bad faith actors weaponised the grievances of primary loser Bernie Sanders’ fans in an effort to pull away votes from the Democratic candidate in favour of fringe third-party candidates.

In 2016 it was Jill Stein, in 2020 it was briefly Kanye West, and next year it’ll be Mr Kennedy, Cornel West, or someone else.

Either Mr Phillips thinks he’ll be able to avoid the same fate, or he thinks it won’t matter.

But like Mr Biden, he’s dead wrong. And absent a change of course from both men, it could be Mr Trump who reaps the benefits.