We got an exclusive interview with Phillips.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 8 minutes.

We got an exclusive interview with Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), who announced on Friday that he was running for president against Joe Biden. Today, we're publishing a truncated newsletter — sharing a breakdown of the story and our interview with Phillips.

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Quick hits.

  1. Israel has continued its airstrikes in the Gaza strip and also executed a small ground invasion. A wider-scale invasion is still expected. Phone and internet services were partially restored over the weekend after being knocked out on Friday (The restoration). Meanwhile, more than 30 aid trucks with food, water, and medical supplies entered Gaza on Sunday. (The latest)
  2. Former Vice President Mike Pence ended his presidential campaign, citing poor poll numbers and a lack of donations. (The decision)
  3. Following a series of drone and rocket attacks against forces in the region, the United States struck two facilities in Syria that were linked to Iranian-backed militias (The strikes)
  4. Blake Masters, a Republican who lost his bid for the Senate in 2022, is planning to run for a House seat in Arizona. (The bid
  5. A judge has ordered the state of Georgia to redraw its congressional maps, ruling that Republican drawn maps illegally dilute the black vote. (The ruling)
  6. FOLLOW UP: Police found the suspect behind the mass shooting in Maine dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. (The discovery)

Today's topic.

Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN). The third-term Minnesota congressman announced that he will be running in the Democratic primary, issuing an unusual challenge to a sitting president of his own party. We were able to get an exclusive interview with Rep. Phillips (video below) just hours after his announcement, which we've shared after "My take" in today's newsletter.

In 2018, Phillips won Minnesota's 3rd District by unseating five-term Republican Erik Paulsen, marking the first time in nearly sixty years that a Republican didn't win the district. A self-described moderate and member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, Phillips says he is running because he doesn't believe President Biden can beat Donald Trump and senses there is a desire among voters for an alternative. He is making affordability, mental health, addiction treatment, and legislation to solve the border crisis the key components of his campaign.

Phillips, 54, was born in Minnesota and inherited his stepfather's Phillips Distilling Company empire. He is also the grandson of advice columnist Pauline Phillips, famously known by the "Dear Abby" moniker. During his 2018 campaign for Congress, he became well known for driving a gelato truck in campaign ads and events (he also ran the gelato maker Talenti). Phillips has served on the board of Temple Israel in Minneapolis and has owned other businesses, including the Penny's Coffee chain. With an estimated net worth of $124 million, he's one of the wealthiest members of Congress.

"We fund more for fighting than we do for feeding," he said in his campaign announcement. "Corporations and the well-off, including me, enjoy more favorable tax treatment than hard-working American families."

Phillips was the subject of much media attention for his confrontational response to some of his Republican colleagues shortly after the January 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol. "This is because of you!" he shouted at Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosar. Phillips also drew attention earlier this year after he stepped down from his role as co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Caucus (DPCC), citing his disagreement with the party consensus that Biden should go unchallenged in the primary.

"I think President Biden has done a spectacular job for our country," Phillips said in an interview with CBS. "But it's not about the past. This is an election about the future."

Democrats have decided to hold their first presidential primary of 2024 in South Carolina instead of New Hampshire. However, New Hampshire has refused to comply, and is planning to hold its primary before South Carolina's. Biden’s name won’t appear on ballots in the Granite State because of this dispute between the party and state officials and Phillips is planning to use that to his advantage, hoping to gain momentum by winning the state early (Biden voters will have to write his name in).

Today, we're going to break down some arguments from the left and right about Phillips’s campaign, then my take. Also, we'll be sharing our exclusive interview with Phillips from Saturday morning.

What the right is saying.

  • The right doesn’t think Phillips has a meaningful chance of beating Biden, but they say his campaign will highlight Democratic voters’ reluctance to support the president’s reelection bid. 
  • Some think Biden should treat Phillips as a serious challenger even if he doesn’t pose a significant threat. 
  • Others say Phillips’s campaign is driven by ego and destined to fail. 

The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote about why Phillips is “taking on Joe Biden.” 

“For months no serious Democrat had the temerity to take on Mr. Biden, possibly for fear of weakening him. Yet the party’s voters aren’t exactly satisfied: One national poll this month had Mr. Biden at 58%, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. 15%, and Marianne Williamson 7%. Nearly a quarter of Democrats went for two gadflies, and RFK Jr. has since bolted to run as an independent. If this isn’t a plea for better options, what is?,” the board said. “Mr. Phillips isn’t likely to win the nomination, but his candidacy will be a proxy for the Democratic desire for more choices.”

“If Mr. Phillips can build momentum in the Granite State, perhaps there’s still a chance of making the Democratic primary interesting in a way that could help the party in November 2024. Or if not, at least some Democrat had the guts to try, since many of them are equally worried about Mr. Biden’s health, polling and prospects against Mr. Trump, even if Mr. Phillips is the only one who will say so.”

In The Washington Post, Henry Olsen said Biden should take Phillips’s campaign “seriously, not literally.”

“Why should Biden care about Phillips? It’s simple: Lots of Americans, including many Democrats, don’t want the president to run again. A recent Yahoo-YouGov poll shows this clearly. Only 55 percent of Democratic primary voters said they wanted Biden to be the Democratic nominee in 2024. Thirty-six percent said they wanted someone else while another 14 percent said they were not sure. Those are terrible numbers for any incumbent,” Olsen wrote.

“Phillips, therefore, need only present himself as a receptacle for unease about Biden. Most voters who cast their ballots for him probably won’t actually want him to win; instead, they will use him to send a clear message to the party: anyone but Biden. The question is, how many people are willing to take that option?,” Olsen asked. “If Biden can’t put Phillips away easily in the first four states, expect Super Tuesday to be a donnybrook.”

In the Washington Examiner, Christopher Tremoglie criticized Phillips’s “pointless” primary challenge to Biden. 

The campaign “may be one of the most desperate cries for attention in contemporary United States politics,” Tremoglie wrote. Phillips claims that he has to run against Biden to stop Trump, but that’s “as illogical as his decision to announce a campaign. How and why would one decide to run for president if that person thought the incumbent was doing a ‘spectacular job’ in office? This doesn’t make any sense.”

“Phillips’s decision to run for president is fueled by narcissism. This is political theater at its worst. Everyone should question his true motives because whatever they are, they are not about realistically challenging Biden for president,” Tremoglie said. “Dean Phillips has zero chance of becoming president of the United States or winning the 2024 Democratic nomination. It is a pointless campaign with no real chance of success.”

What the left is saying.

  • The left is mostly critical of Phillips’s campaign, suggesting it’s a weak challenge to Biden without a persuasive message. 
  • Some criticize Phillips for implicitly entering the race because of Biden’s age but refusing to say so. 
  • Others think Phillips could provide a needed wake up call to Biden to start campaigning more aggressively. 

In New York Magazine, Ed Kilgore said Biden’s age is Dean Phillips’s “only issue.”

“The two themes underlying his rationale for his candidacy are that he fears Biden is unelectable and that it’s time for a ‘new generation of leaders.’ That adds up to a single implicit argument: ‘Biden’s too old,’” Kilgore wrote. “So Phillips is going to say it for them to the cheers of the very MAGA folks he claims to be singularly motivated to defeat. His candidacy, magnified by conservative media, will guarantee that so long as it lasts, Biden’s age and alleged feebleness will never be out of the public eye for a moment, and it will be given greater credibility by his partisan and ideological identification with the incumbent. 

“Phillips’s secondary message — that Democrats are a bunch of cowards who know Biden is a doddering relic but don’t have the guts to do anything about it — will also find an avid audience full of amplifying bullhorns. Phillips appears aware of all these risks, yet he doesn’t really offer much in the way of evidence that he can produce any outcome that makes the damage he’s doing to the future 2024 nominee worthwhile.”

In Politico Magazine, Jack Shafer described Phillips’s campaign as “a primary challenge like no other.”

Breaking from historical precedent is “Dean Phillips, a three-term representative to Congress from Minnesota with name recognition near zero, who has staked out no distinguishing political position, who counts no actual congressional accomplishments, and who is about to run against  Biden,” all without any real disagreements with him. “But because no other Biden-worshipper with presidential ambitions… is currently willing to enter the contest and pursue the same policies that have earned Biden such low approval numbers, Phillips thinks he should campaign for the job.”

“If Phillips would simply level with voters and say what many think he’s saying — that we should turn the page on Biden because in the 30 months since he tweeted his unalloyed praise of him, the president has lost a step or two — then Biden could at least respond directly. Perhaps he could perform a set of mental gymnastics and clear a cognitive minefield to prove his readiness for another four years,” Shafer wrote. “But Phillips, who has yet to make his mark in politics, lacks the presidential fortitude to go there.”

In The Messenger, David Richards argued Phillips’s presence in the race “will be good for Joe Biden.”

“Phillips is relatively unknown but, unlike earlier challengers such as Kennedy, before his switch to independent, or Marianne Williamson, who ran unsuccessfully in 2020, Phillips represents a mainstream Democratic point of view politically. He represents a viable alternative to Biden, one that many in the party might be okay with,” Richards said. “Biden’s weak polling numbers reveal his own uphill climb to a second term. Phillips offers at least one thing that Biden does not have: Phillips is 54, and Biden already is the oldest serving president.”

Biden has yet to campaign in any meaningful way, “and why should he? He has been running against a weak to nonexistent Democratic field in the nomination process. There is little incentive for him to run hard at this point. This is where Phillips’ entry to the race could, believe it or not, help Biden,” Richards wrote. “Having to campaign in the primaries would get Biden out in front of the voters again and may help him, in the long run, win over more of the American public.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • We don't endorse candidates, and won't do so here.
  • Phillips seems like a thoughtful and direct person who genuinely seeks bipartisan compromise.
  • His rationale for running makes sense, but calling him a "longshot" understates the challenge he faces.

In today's special edition, we're publishing a truncated newsletter, and are asking you to go watch our exclusive interview with Phillips on our YouTube channel. You can check it out (be sure to "like" the video and subscribe!) below.

Unlike other news organizations, we have an editorial policy of not endorsing candidates in elections, so you won't find any of that here. But I will tell you what I think about Phillips.

First, he strikes me as a thoughtful and direct person.

In my conversation with him (below), I was struck by the simplicity of his argument: A lot of Democrats worry about Biden's capacity to serve a second term, and they should be given an alternative.

The major difference between Phillips and candidates like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or Cornel West is that he is going about this in a way that guarantees he won't directly undermine Biden’s chances in the general election. Rather than run a third-party or independent campaign, he is trying to beat Biden in a Democratic primary. His odds of succeeding are obviously low, just as low as anyone's running as a third-party candidate. But for a Democrat who wants to challenge Biden, this is a sensible way to do it.

I also like the notes he hits. He is a member of Congress willing to work with the other side, as evidenced by his membership in the Problems Solvers Caucus, his ability to win a historically Republican district, and his consistently stated desire to work with Republicans. When he talks about addressing immigration, gun violence, the culture of division and affordability, or deaths of despair like overdoses and suicides, I think his messaging will resonate with a wide range of voters.

He also just seems like a decent person. In profiles of him, Phillips is consistently described as someone who genuinely tries to listen to voters and consider perspectives he might not have heard. While other politicians work to gerrymander their districts or stake out neverending terms in office, he expresses support for term limits and bucks his own party when he thinks they're wrong. That kind of stuff is a shortcut to earning my respect.

My biggest gripes with him are mostly about his shallow resume and the timing of his decision. Phillips is quick to acknowledge his own wealth, but one could also argue that the business acumen he boasts of is simply the product of a massive inheritance. Similarly, I'm wary of his lack of experience. A few years in Congress is nothing to sneeze at, but — as with other candidates who I've said were inexperienced — I have no idea if the time he’s spent in office is enough to prepare him for the most difficult, complicated, important job in the country.

Finally, I'm curious about this: Does he actually think he can win? The strategy of his campaign has some merit (win in New Hampshire, ride the media wave that follows), but he’ll have to generate a lot of the right kind of attention. Calling him a "longshot" is probably the understatement of the year. Realistically, Phillips has basically no shot, which makes me wonder if his campaign is really a cynical attempt to advance his future in politics — perhaps for 2028, or a Senate run, or something else. If he’s adamant that Biden is a spectacular president who has done a great job, it’s hard to reconcile that with his firm belief the president has no shot at winning re-election. 

That's not to say he doesn't have answers for this stuff. In our interview, I asked him about his experience, what makes him different from Biden, and how he thinks he can actually defeat an incumbent president in a primary. That’s something that has never happened since the modern primary election system was put in place in 1972; what has happened is that incumbents who face a strong primary challenge often go on to lose the general election.

Our interview with Phillips:

We were able to land an exclusive interview with Rep. Phillips on Saturday morning just hours after he officially launched his campaign. You can watch it below. Be sure to like the video and subscribe to our YouTube channel, too!

The extras. 

  • One year ago today we wrote about Kanye West's antisemitic comments.
  • The most clicked link in Thursday's newsletter was our archived post on why the national debt matters.
  • Optimistic about what?: 833 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking how optimistic they are about Mike Johnson's speakership with 34% saying they are somewhat pessimistic. 29% said they are highly pessimistic, 18% were somewhat optimistic, 11% were neither optimistic or pessimistic, and 5% were highly optimistic. "What’s he supposed to do with a 4 seat majority in the House honestly?," one respondent asked.
  • Nothing to do with politics: Which countries observe daylight savings time.
  • Take the poll. What do you think about Dean Phillips entering the race? Let us know!

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