A Few Theories on Why Dean Phillips Is Still in the Race

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Written By Pinang Driod

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At what point does a “long-shot candidacy” tip into a pure vanity spectacle? Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota refuses to suspend his Democratic-primary campaign against President Joe Biden. Does Phillips know something we don’t—or does he have a different 2024 plan in mind? First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

  • Mitch McConnell surrenders to Trump.
  • Amazon’s big secret
  • Graeme Wood: “Stop glorifying self-immolation.”

Vanity Campaign or VP Campaign?

Seemingly nobody wants a 2020 rematch, yet both Biden and former President Donald Trump continue to cruise toward their respective party nominations.

Last night in Michigan, Trump defeated his Republican-primary challenger, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, by 42 points. In the Democratic contest, Biden won with more than 80 percent of the vote, while second place went to “uncommitted”—partially due to protests over Biden’s support for Israel in its war with Hamas in Gaza. Marianne Williamson, who had previously suspended her campaign but was still on the Democratic-primary ballot, received 3 percent and claimed third place. As a result, Williamson unsuspended her campaign this morning. (Brace yourself for #Mariannementum.)

In last place came Phillips, who received 2.7 percent, or about 20,500 total votes—roughly 2,000 fewer than Williamson and almost 600,000 fewer than Biden. Phillips, to his credit, had an admirable sense of humor about it. “If you resent me for the audacity to challenge Joe Biden, at least you’ll appreciate how relatively strong I’m making him look among primary voters!” he posted last night, throwing in a flex emoji for good measure.

This morning, Phillips reentered Self-Serious-Politician Mode. He acknowledged on X that Democratic-primary voters and “Party people” do not “wish to entertain alternatives to Joe Biden,” and said he honored that fact. Nevertheless, Phillips refused to pack it in. “I’m not going anywhere and not suspending my mission,” he wrote in a follow-up post. “I will continue to assess the most proficient approach to protecting America, Americans, and our treasured democracy.”

Zoom in on that last part for a moment: “the most proficient approach.”

Phillips is a member of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus and an ally of Nancy Jacobson, the founder and CEO of the centrist group No Labels. As I reported this week, No Labels, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that insists it’s not a political party, is poised to enter the 2024 presidential race in the coming weeks with a third-party “unity ticket.” Phillips has publicly gone back and forth on whether he’d consider running on the No Labels ballot line, which currently exists in 16 states. The cold reality is that he’s not a big-enough name to lead the ticket.

For the top spot, No Labels prefers a Republican, and the group appears to be courting Haley. (Her campaign continues to claim she’s not interested.) Like Phillips, Haley keeps losing primary contests, and, like Phillips, she keeps ignoring calls to drop out. But some observers have hypothesized that she might soon take the No Labels option more seriously. Which brings us back to Phillips’s word choice: “The most proficient approach” sounds like he’s exploring other avenues, including, perhaps, a No Labels vice-presidency bid. When Phillips launched his campaign last October, my colleague Tim Alberta wrote that “to spend time around Dean Phillips” is to “encounter someone so earnest as to be utterly suspicious.”

On Monday, I asked Jacobson whether Phillips was still under “unity ticket” consideration. “No comment,” she said in an email. I texted Phillips this morning asking to chat about the race going forward. He did not reply.

Almost one year ago exactly, my colleague Mark Leibovich wrote a controversial essay titled “The Case for a Primary Challenge to Joe Biden.” And last fall, Leibovich spent 90 minutes in a van with Phillips, trying to get inside his head. Today, I asked Leibovich what he thought Phillips was still doing in the race. “Beats the hell out of me,” he said. He elaborated in an email:

I say this as someone who believes that Phillips was absolutely justified in running in the first place. I hated (and continue to hate) the arrogance of most Democratic “leaders” who do the “how dare he?” thing with Phillips, especially given how most of them (privately) really do think Biden is too old and that him running is a potentially catastrophic act of selfishness.

Phillips had an important argument to make before the voting started: that voters did deserve a choice, especially given the unpopularity and doubts around the incumbent. Phillips proved not really ready for prime time, but ran a noble enough race. I actually thought he could pull about 30% in [New Hampshire] and embarrass Biden, especially since the latter wasn’t even on the ballot.

But DP really didn’t do much in NH, and after the primary would have been the logical time to stop. Give a faux-triumphant speech, be gracious, endorse Biden and sail off into the sunset. It’s not like it was going to get any better for Phillips in SC or Michigan. Now it’s just embarrassing, finishing behind Marianne Williamson, etc.

Maybe Phillips has some consultants in his ear, who still stand to make money off of him. Or some high-profile, high-self-regard supporters (Andrew Yang, Bill Ackman). Or maybe he’s just stubborn and a bit of a megalomaniac himself. Or maybe he’s just trying to keep his name out there in case he wants to run statewide for something in Minnesota … Another possible factor is that first-time candidates can get addicted to the lifestyle of running for president, and it can be hard to give it up …

But all of that is speculation, and secondary to my initial “beats the hell out of me” reaction.

I also chatted about Phillips with my colleague Ronald Brownstein, who has covered every presidential election since 1984.

“This is beyond vanity,” Brownstein told me by phone. “People have run for all sorts of different reasons, and I think it’s become increasingly common in the 21st century for people to run with no expectation of winning, but the hope of building their brand,” he added. “If you got 2 percent of the vote and finished behind Marianne Williamson, who was not actively running at that point, it’s not exactly like you’re building your brand. You’re diminishing it. You’re tearing down whatever limited scaffolding you had put up in the first place. It’s not like there’s an MSNBC show waiting at the end of the line because he’s been such a powerful, articulate candidate or anything.”

Brownstein agreed that Phillips may be “auditioning” for Jacobson and the No Labels “unity ticket.” He also acknowledged that the power dynamics in that negotiation may now be inverted: Phillips may be somewhat desperate for electoral success, but No Labels, for its part, may be even more desperate to simply secure a candidate. “They’re kind of scrounging on the docks trying to find a warm body,” Brownstein said of No Labels.

In the end, the hypothetical No Labels “unity ticket,” whomever it may contain, is likely to draw more votes from Biden than it would from Trump, and, rather than save American democracy, could usher in an autocracy. No Labels said it will make its final decision about entering the race next week. Meanwhile, the Phillips campaign marches on.

Related:

  • A wild and dangerous 2024 experiment
  • The case for a primary challenge to Joe Biden (from February 2023)

Today’s News

  1. Mitch McConnell announced that he will step down as GOP leader in November.
  2. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Donald Trump’s immunity case the week of April 22, 2024.
  3. Wildfires are raging across the Texas panhandle and parts of northwest Oklahoma. Authorities say that the weather will remain dangerously dry for at least another week.

Evening Read

Brian Finke / Gallery Stock

Your TV Is Too Good for You

By Ian Bogost

Last fall, when Netflix hiked the cost of its top-tier Ultra HD plan by 15 percent, I had finally had enough: $22.99 a month just felt like too much for the ability to see Jaws in 4K video resolution. A couple of weeks later, I heard that Max was pushing up the fee of its own 4K streaming by 25 percent. Now I wasn’t just annoyed, but confused. Super-high-res televisions are firmly ensconced as the next standard for home viewing of TV and movies. And yet, super-high-res content seems to be receding ever further into a specialty consumer niche. What happened?

4K certainly is ubiquitous; you won’t find many sets with lower resolution for sale at Best Buy. In practice, though, the technology is rarely used. Cable signals are generally mere HD, as are the standard plans on most streaming services. And the fancy new displays, as they’re placed and viewed in people’s homes, may never end up looking any sharper than the old ones, no matter what Netflix plan you have. In short, the ultra-high-definition future for TV has turned out to be a lie.

Read the full article.


More From The Atlantic

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Culture Break

A still from Abbott Elementary
Gilles Mingasson / Disney

Read. Spend time with some of the Black-history books teachers hope won’t be banned.

Watch. Catch up on Abbott Elementary (on Hulu), a show that features one of TV’s best slow-burn couples.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

Lest you think this Dean Phillips–themed newsletter contains an anti-Minnesota bias, I’d like to formally endorse the latest season of Fargo, which takes place in the great midwestern state. This is one of the sharpest, strongest seasons of television I’ve seen in years. In many ways, it reminded me of a full-on Coen Brothers Universe project, No Country for Old Men. It’s suspenseful and chilling, and Jennifer Jason Leigh sounds like Liza Minnelli for some reason. Jon Hamm has gotten his share of attention for his portrayal of a misogynistic MAGA-esque sheriff, but the real draw of the show is its indefatigable heroine, played by Juno Temple, of Ted Lasso fame. Picture the direct opposite of Ted Lasso—that’s this season of Fargo.

— John

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.

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John Hendrickson is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Life on Delay.

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