Dean Phillips on the campaign trail in New Hampshire. (Photo by Gaelen Morse/Getty Images)

Weekend Listening: Dean Phillips on His Long-Shot White House Bid

The Minnesota moderate on why he’s running, Democratic corruption, Biden’s decline, January 6, and more.

The first Democratic primary in New Hampshire is less than two weeks away and the mood among Democrats is grim. Joe Biden is behind Trump in almost every national poll. And the feeling among Democrats is well, there’s just nothing we can do about it.

Enter Dean Phillips: the lone Democratic soldier trying to make a last-ditch effort to stop the 2020 rematch from hell.

Dean is a moderate congressman from Minnesota. He has political experience, but not the baggage of a long career in D.C. He’s known as an incredibly bipartisan politician. He’s a philanthropist, a business magnate (who makes gelato, of all things), a husband, and a father. But maybe most importantly, he's a spry 54. By many metrics, he has what everyone claims to want in a Democratic presidential nominee.

He also offers an alternative for the American voter who feels alienated by both parties. As Peter Savodnik reported this week in The FP, “nearly half of Americans today identify as independents—not necessarily because they’re centrists, or moderates, but because neither party reflects their views.” Dean believes he can win over those voters. He’s already proven he will buck the Democratic party establishment, at great personal and professional cost. (As James Carville said, Dean’s bound to be treated like a heretic in Democratic circles from here on out.)

So why is he doing this? And can he actually pull it off?

On today’s episode of Honestly, a conversation with Dean Phillips about his uphill battle to knock his own party’s nominee out of the way, his motivations for running in the first place, and how the Democratic Party has gotten to this pass. We also cover his positions on issues like the border crisis, education, policing, healthcare, Israel, China, his Jewish identity, and his improbable friendship with Rashida Tlaib. 

Listen here to our full conversation, or check out an edited excerpt below. And as always, see you in the comments. —BW

On the Democratic Party’s corruption: 

DEAN PHILLIPS: About 80 percent of the country wants neither of the two most likely candidates, which is why I’m running for president. We have to break the duopoly. We have to create competition, because that’s what Americans demand. But Americans have to participate in primaries. Americans don’t vote in primaries. 

Politics is about winning, and then it is about working together to get stuff done. I do not see a Democratic Party right now that seems to want to win. If we want it to win, we would not be coronating a candidate who is losing in just about every national poll, who is losing in every single one of the seven battleground states, who is facing the lowest approval numbers in American history, who is clearly in the dusk of life and clearly has lost the affection and support of a majority of Americans. And for a party to coronate someone like that rather than have a thoughtful, invitational competition isn’t just a dereliction of duty. It is damn right dangerous. 

We have a system designed to penalize, to attack, to hurt, to demean, to diminish and oppress anybody who might have the audacity to practice democracy. And having gone through the first two months of this campaign, I do understand why people are hesitant to do the unthinkable. And by the way, why is it unthinkable in a democracy to offer one’s name in a primary competition? That’s why we have them. 

I don’t know how a Democratic Party could be supportive of democracy while actively suppressing voters’ candidates. And they proactively announced that there would not be a debate during the Democratic primary, no matter who’s in it. And I’m astounded. 

On speaking out against Biden’s reelection and trying to get a fellow Democrat to run:

DP: I’m going to take you back to January 6, 2021, because that’s when this mission began. I was trapped in the House Chamber with about 20 of my colleagues in the mezzanine level, and most people on the floor had escaped. And I was sitting with colleagues in tears who were calling and texting home to say goodbye, because we really thought at that moment that they were coming with guns and they were coming for Democrats, and we had nothing to defend ourselves with other than pens and pencils. Those were the worst 15 minutes of my life. What really jarred me, though, was when we finally escaped, we were brought to a safe room, and I was in a small room with about 25 people, including Liz Cheney, who at that time was the third ranking member of the House Republican Conference, and not somebody who I knew well. And hours later, when Trump finally got on TV and tried to end the insurrection, I was with her when she pointed at the television screen and exclaimed loudly, “He’s responsible, and we’re going to hold him accountable.” And at that moment, every Democrat and Republican in that room—it was the only moment I felt like this in Congress—we all clapped. And I can guarantee you, we all felt like just Americans, that we were on the same team. It was a beautiful, memorable, indelible experience. And over the course of the next year, Liz Cheney went from that moment to losing her job in House leadership in the Republican Conference to being essentially excommunicated for having the audacity to uphold her oath to the Constitution. 

What I saw during that year was every one of my Republican friends would say the same thing to me privately. They were appalled by Donald Trump. They found him dangerous, incompetent, repulsive, and then they’d get on TV at night on Fox and simply lie, say they loved him, say “He’s the only one that can get the job done. His policies are wonderful.” And I was grossed out. And I thought that was a unique disease to the right.

Now you get to the Biden episode. He had implied that he would serve one term. Most in Congress felt it would be one term. When it looked like he was going to run, people were shocked on my side of the aisle. We’ve seen the decline. I don’t think he is incompetent, but his communication skills have seriously declined. His physical abilities are clearly in decline. He’s a human being. He’s 81 years old. I don’t need to state the obvious, but people were shocked when he declared his candidacy because we’ve seen it and we knew. And my Democratic colleagues started doing the same thing, saying one thing privately and then getting in front of the cameras and lying. And I was appalled. And I started calling attention to it. I said it was time for the president to hand the torch to inspire the new generation to take the stage. He clearly didn’t do that.

Then, I made phone calls to Governor Whitmer and Governor Pritzker—I thought they would be outstanding candidates. They wouldn’t take my call. And it became clear very quickly that there was a coronation in process.

I wish anybody—Whitmer, Manchin, Shapiro—

BARI WEISS: Are they cowards?

DP: I’m not going to call them cowards, but I’m going to say I’m disappointed in them. Disappointed in people who could have saved this nonsense, eliminated the blinders, and most importantly, beat Donald Trump probably easily, to refuse to offer their names. Yeah, I’m terribly disappointed.

I really thought a Whitmer–Warnock ticket would be unbeatable. But the Democratic Party’s culture is tenure, not talent. It’s wait in line, climb the ladder, stay in politics as long as you possibly can until it’s your turn. I’m becoming concerned that if we don’t reform this party soon, we’re in big trouble.

The fact that my fellow Democrats have been so silent in the face of truth is really appalling to me. The people who are the most important protectors of the foundations of this entire country are abdicating their responsibilities in the favor of their self-preservation and self-protection and their aspirations, which is why there’s not a single well-known Democratic candidate other than Joe Biden on the stage right now, because if it was not about them and it was about the country, most assuredly they would be on the stage with me.

On finally deciding to run for president himself:

DP: Finally, I came to the conclusion that in the absence of courage, I could not continue to congregate with people who didn’t share the conviction that was so clear to me. And I decided: if not now, when? And if not me, who?

The mission is to change a system that is defeating the very democracy that ostensibly we are supposed to be upholding. I’m doing it not because I’m a conspiracy theorist. I’m a commonsense, pragmatic former House Democratic leader, three-term member of Congress who’s shocked by how this really works. It is really corrupt and really dangerous. 

On being shut out from MSNBC:

DP: I have not received a single invitation to be on MSNBC since I declared my candidacy. 

BW: You’re kidding me. 

DP: No. Not one. And by the way, I’m the ranking member of the Middle East Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs. I’ve been with Benjamin Netanyahu twice to Riyadh this year, to Turkey. I’ve been working on the peace process. And I haven’t received a single invitation, despite the tragedy that’s going on in the Middle East, because at the end of the day, Bari, just as Fox is the bullhorn for the GOP, MSNBC is the same thing with Democrats. And the media relies on access to information and people, and they do not want to risk hurting that flow, because that’s how you make billions of dollars. 

On Israel and being one of only 22 Jewish Democrats in the House:

BW: Has your understanding of your personal Jewish identity, and your role as a Jewish Democrat, changed since October 7?

: Massively. I have been forced to confront the realities of something that I really had hoped had been extinguished. And that’s antisemitism. And what I’ve been subject to, what my colleagues have been subject to, what Jewish communities have been subject to, is repulsive. As a Jewish person, I never imagined in my own country that I would feel sometimes unsafe, that I would have to think about my children’s safety. I also thought my political family would be there for us. And I’ve learned that in some strange way, progressive protection seems to end at the front step of Jewish people.

: You have boasted in the past about your close friendship with Rashida Tlaib, someone who has defended shouting quotes like “from the river to the sea,” which we could argue is interpreted as a genocidal slogan. She also has called Israel an apartheid government. How has your relationship changed, and are there limits to that friendship?

DP: I think this is the question that every single one of us has to ask ourselves right now. Do we withdraw, or do we confront and do we debate? And my nature has always been to run to the fire. And believe me, our relationship is complicated. I’m deeply horrified by some of the things she says and by some of her perspectives. But I also have invested time to get to know her, and she me. I believe that friendship of ours is a very important one, because if we cannot reconcile, then how in the heck can Israel and Palestine ultimately become peaceful neighbors? How can the rest of the world, if we don’t ultimately find space and place to get to know each other and at least understand each other? When I talk about my friendship with her, it’s complicated.

BW: Do you think it’s possible to be friends with an antisemite as a Jew?

DP: Ultimately, no. But if someone doesn’t like Israel and favors Palestinians, does that make them an antisemite? Sometimes.

BW: If someone believes that Israel is the only state that doesn’t have a right to exist, is that an antisemitic position? 

DP: Therein lies my biggest challenge with Rashida. I don’t want to get into private moments, but we had a very difficult episode on that very specific question, and it was not resolved. It continues to be unresolved. And it’s very difficult for me. And if you are not a Jewish person whose family and ancestors were subject to the Holocaust, whose ancestors were subject to pogroms—that’s what brought my family here—you cannot understand what this feels like, and I’m disappointed that I extend respect, empathy, appreciation for the life stories and challenges of people that I can’t relate to what they went through—I do it every day—and I’m really concerned about the inability, unwillingness, or ignorance of people unwilling to understand what being Jewish feels like, because it’s really hard. It’s really, really hard. 

There are 200 Christian-majority nations in the world. There are about 140 Muslim-majority nations in the world, and there’s only one Jewish-majority nation in the entire world. And one can tell me that, you know what, the United States at the dawn of the Holocaust accepted Jewish refugees en masse. One could argue, then, that there is a country that would always accept the Jews, right? Well, no, that’s not how it worked, as you well know. The first boats that brought refugees here were turned back. So don’t tell me, if you’re an American, that we’re a country that will always accept refugees. No, we don’t. So Israel needs to exist. It has a right to exist. I understand every country in the entire world, almost without exception, was created with violence and displacement of people, including the United States of America. We displaced people and we did it with violence. That is the formation of about every nation in the world. And it sucks, and it’s awful, and it’s part of the human condition, and it’s part of human history. 

But I’m going to return to Israel. Israel deserves to exist. Hamas is the enemy of Israel. It’s the enemy of the Palestinians. We need new leadership from the West Bank to the West Wing. And I’m just really getting tired of having to choose a side when the side should be human beings. Israelis deserve to live in peace and prosperity, and Palestinians do too.

On supporting Biden if he’s the nominee: 

BW: If Biden gets the 2024 nomination, will you support him?

DP: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s integral and existential for Americans who recognize the danger of Donald Trump, who I assume will be the GOP nominee. The answer is yes. And conversely, Bari, I would ask that if I’m ahead in the polls over Trump come next summer, that he would get behind my candidacy. Conversely, if it’s not Biden or Phillips and there’s somebody else that emerges who is better positioned to defeat Donald Trump, we should get behind their candidacy.

On Biden’s decline:

BW: Do you think Joe Biden has dementia? 

DP: No, I don’t think he has dementia. I think that’s unfair. I do think there’s been a serious and quite obvious decline in his ability to communicate. But the issue here is not about him; it’s America’s perception of him. And America has made up their mind. And it’s not about demeaning him. It is about just simply acknowledging the truth. And a political party should have the responsibility to identify candidates who can win.

DP: The president in 2020 was probably the only Democrat who could have beaten Donald Trump. And he did, barely. Barely. He won by 44,000 votes in a few states. So using a Reaganesque term: Do you think Joe Biden is better off now than he was four years ago? Of course not. But I also don’t believe he’s being told the truth. I don’t think he is really aware of his standing in this country. I don’t think he’s aware of how tragic this will be, both for his own legacy and for the country, because I think if he was, he would make a different decision. And the only reason I really do question anything about his competency right now is on this single subject, because it is so irrational, so counterintuitive, and so dangerous that I cannot quite reconcile it with the man I know. 

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