Like many politicians, Representative Dean Phillips likes to look people in the eye. And because he’s a politician, Phillips can glean things, just as President George W. Bush did when he peered into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and saw his soul.
“I’ve looked Benjamin Netanyahu in the eye,” Phillips told a group of students at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire, last week.
“I did not like what I saw,” Phillips said of the Israeli prime minister. “I do not like his government. He’s got to go.”
Philips has also looked into Donald Trump’s eyes. That, too, was ominous. It was a few years ago, and the former president had invited a bunch of new House members to the White House for an introductory visit.
“I looked him in the eye for the better part of an hour,” Phillips told me.
“I saw right through him,” Phillips said. “I know exactly how to handle weaklings like Donald Trump.”
“You’ll see,” he said. “Why would I give away my special sauce?”
Phillips was telling me this while tucked into the back of a minivan, having just set off on a 90-minute ride from Hanover to Manchester. He wore a down vest over a blue dress shirt and looked me straight in the you-know-what as he described the “gravity of this entire circumstance” he was now embarked upon.
He had just concluded one of his early days as an official primary challenger to President Joe Biden, the incumbent he must first dispatch before he can douse Trump with his proprietary Dean Sauce. Phillips is pursuing this mission despite long odds and an unsurprising chorus of how dare yous and not helpfuls from various Democratic gatekeepers. He has already said plenty about why he is doing this—about how Democrats are desperate for a Plan B to Biden, who Phillips says has no business seeking reelection at his age (81 on Monday), with his poll numbers and the catastrophic threat of his likely GOP opponent (yes, him). Phillips agonized over his decision and unburdened himself in multiple forums, including, quite expansively last month, to my colleague Tim Alberta.
I was in New Hampshire because I wanted to see Phillips transition from theoretical to actual challenger. It is one thing to scream warnings about alarming data, and another to segue into the granular doings of a campaign. “This is an all-hands-on-deck initiative,” he told me, his words landing somewhere between hyper-earnest and naive, with occasional tips into grandiose. Phillips, 54, is a figure of uncommonly big plans and weighty burdens, especially given his relatively modest station (he has represented Minnesota’s Third Congressional District since 2019). He seems sincere about what he’s doing, especially compared with the two-faced default of so many elected Democrats who tout Biden’s reelection in public while privately pining for some other candidate, like Gretchen Whitmer, the Rock, or whomever they want instead. In this sense, Phillips’s gambit is noble, even necessary. It can also be lonely and awkward to watch up close.
Since entering the race a month ago, Phillips has held a series of mostly low-key events in New Hampshire and has made a stop in South Carolina. I first encountered him during a heartfelt give-and-take with half a dozen members of the Dartmouth Political Union. “This is a beautiful American moment,” Phillips declared after a dialogue about abortion policy with a polite young Nikki Haley supporter. Later, at a town hall across campus, Phillips described that bridge-building exchange as “one of the most profound hours of engagement” he’s had in a long while and something “I will remember for years to come.”
Phillips told me that his initial campaign forays have only—surprise—reaffirmed the premise of his errand: “Other than some Democratic elected officials, and only a few of them, I’ve not yet encountered a single person who doesn’t feel the same way,” he said, about the need for a Biden alternative. His go-to weapon against the president is public opinion, for which Phillips keeps getting fresh ammunition. “I want to give you some simple data,” he said during a meet and greet with about 50 students, faculty, and community members before the town hall. He mentioned a recent survey of voters in battleground states that had Biden trailing Trump by four points, 48–44. “But then you look at how Trump does against a ‘generic Democrat,’” Phillips said, “and the generic Democrat wins 48–40.” Heads bobbed in the classroom; Phillips shook his in exasperation.
Phillips himself is polling at just 10 percent among likely New Hampshire Democratic-primary voters, according to a CNN survey released last week that had Biden at 65 percent. During our car ride, I suggested to Phillips that maybe he should change his name to “Generic Democrat.”
“I never in my life aspired to be generic,” he replied, chuckling.
Primary challenges to incumbent presidents have historically been associated with signature causes and fiery rhetoric. They tend to be ideologically driven—such as Ted Kennedy’s challenge to President Jimmy Carter from the left in 1980 and Pat Buchanan’s to President George H. W. Bush from the right in 1992. No one will mistake Phillips for a brawling populist. He is affable, well mannered, and extremely rich, with a net worth of about $50 million, some portion of it derived from the gelato-and-sorbet company—Talenti—that he co-owned before it was sold.
Still, Phillips frequently brings up the late Senator Eugene McCarthy, a fellow Minnesota Democrat, whose uprising against President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 helped push Johnson to not seek reelection. The comparison is fraught in that Democrats wound up nominating another Minnesotan, Hubert Humphrey, who went on to lose to Richard Nixon. Carter and Bush also lost their general elections. This tends to be the main critique of Phillips: that his project could weaken Biden against Trump.
One student at Dartmouth questioned Phillips about the 1980 example, arguing that Kennedy was the reason that Carter was ultimately blown out by Ronald Reagan. Phillips came back with a lengthy and somewhat defensive response. “Ted Kennedy didn’t cause Carter’s problems any more than I’ve caused Joe Biden’s problems,” he said. The student nodded and thanked the candidate, who in turn thanked the student—and another beautiful American moment was forged.
“I am the anti-defeat candidate,” Phillips said, describing his enterprise to me later. “I am the truth-telling candidate.” “Truth-telling” is of course subjective, in campaigns as in life. Phillips then told me about a visit he’d made to a Hanover restaurant that day. After a series of “wonderful conversations” with random diners, he’d encountered a young woman who “I sensed was not showing any compassion for butchered Israelis”—a reference to the Hamas attacks on October 7. So Phillips, who is Jewish, paused the conversation and asked a question of his own. “I said, ‘Are you telling me that you support Hamas?’” Phillips said. “And she goes, ‘Yes.’” At which point, he’d heard enough.
“I said, ‘Look, I really enjoyed our conversation, but I can’t continue this.’”
“Wait, did you really enjoy that conversation?” I interrupted, questioning his truth-telling.
“I’ll tell you what, that’s a good point,” Phillips acknowledged. “I did not enjoy it.”
In that spirit of engaging with people of different backgrounds and persuasions, Phillips frequently invokes his friendship with Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress, who was censured by the House this month for her comments about Israel. Phillips refers to Tlaib as “my Palestinian sister” and to himself as “her Jewish brother.”
I pressed Phillips on the state of his relations with Tlaib. “It’s as difficult as ever and more important than ever,” he said. He then raised the stakes even higher. “I believe that as Rashida Tlaib and Dean Phillips go, so will the Middle East,” he said. (A lot of pressure there!)
As our nighttime ride persisted southeast down Interstate 89, the conversation took some quick turns.
“Is Kamala Harris prepared to step in if something happened to Biden?” I asked Phillips.
“I think that Americans have made the decision that she’s not,” he said.
I replied that I was interested in the decision of one specific American, Dean Phillips.
“That is not my opinion,” Phillips clarified. He said that every interaction he’s had with the vice president has been “thoughtful” and that “I’ve enjoyed them.”
“That said …” Phillips paused, and I braced for the vibe shift.
“I hear from others who know her a lot better than I do that many think she’s not well positioned,” he said of Harris. “She is not well prepared, doesn’t have the right disposition and the right competencies to execute that office.” Phillips also noted that Harris’s approval numbers are even worse than Biden’s: “It’s pretty clear that she’s not somebody people have faith in.”
But again, Phillips is not one of those people: “From my personal experiences, I’ve not seen those deficiencies.”
If Phillips had looked me in the eye at that moment—and granted, it was dark in the back of the van—he would have seen a slightly confused expression. Why was he hiding behind these Trumplike “many people are saying” attributions? Similarly, he often speaks in glowing terms about Biden’s performance in office—“his administration has been quite extraordinary”—while leaning heavily on “the opinion of others” or “the data” to make his case that the president himself needs to go. Phillips can seem torn at times as he attempts to hedge his way through somewhat contradictory impulses: to give Biden his proper due while also trying to end his career.
I asked Phillips what would happen if his campaign really takes off—he wins a bunch of primaries—and then Biden tries to placate the insurgents by dumping Harris in favor of their hero, Dean Phillips. Would he agree to serve as Biden’s new understudy?
I anticipated the “I’m not answering hypothetical questions” blow-off that they teach in Candidate School. But Phillips apparently skipped class that day. “That’s a really interesting question,” he said, before letting me down gently.
“President Biden will never replace Vice President Harris on the ticket, ever,” he said.
For the record—bonus nugget—Phillips predicts that Trump will select Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to be his running mate. “And they will be very difficult to beat,” he fears. These are the kinds of empty punditing calories that get passed around during long drives on chilly campaign nights.
As we approached Manchester, Phillips flashed back to reality, or something. “I am the best positioned to defeat Donald Trump,” he said. “All I’m focused on right now is to run a spirited, thoughtful, and energetic campaign.”
“What about ‘vigorous’ and ‘robust’?” I asked.
“Yes, yes,” Phillips said, nodding. It was getting late, and we were both getting a bit punchy.
“And bold,” he added.
Our van pulled into the Manchester DoubleTree just before 10 p.m. Phillips had to wake up in a few hours to catch a 6:15 a.m. flight back to Washington. He looked me in the eye. I’m not sure what he saw, or what I saw, but I wished him luck.
“I’ve enjoyed this,” Phillips said.