Saturday, October 28, 2023

Heading Into a Racial Buzzsaw

In a candidacy that is equal parts bold and bizarre, United States Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota has announced a run for the Democratic nomination for President.

"The irony," as William Conrad intoned at the beginning of each television episode of The Fugitive, "(is) Richard Kimble is innocent." The irony here, after eight years of Barack Obama and four of Donald Trump, the country has had the benefit of almost three years of a productive and effective presidency. And unlike the last Democratic President, Joe Biden is being challenged- sort of- from within his own party.

As this article by Tim Alberta in The Atlantic suggests, Phillips, a member of the centrist, bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, is not challenging Biden on ideological grounds. Nor is he running because he believes that the incumbent has been a bad President. Interviewing Phillips at the latter's Virginia farmhouse on October 20, Alberta found a congressman fearful that Joe Biden is dead man walking, a clear underdog to Donald Trump.

After spending portions of 2022 "cultivating relationships with powerful donors, from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, who had offered their assistance in recruiting a challenger to Biden," Phillips was still undecided, with Democratic heavyweights warning him that a challenge to the incumbent would only impede the latter's re-election in 2024.  This summer, he

began asking House Democratic colleagues for the personal phone numbers of governors in their states. Some obliged him; others ignored the request or refused it. Phillips tried repeatedly to get in touch with these governors. Only two got back to him—Whitmer in Michigan, and J. B. Pritzker in Illinois—but neither one would speak to the congressman directly. “They had their staff take the call,” Phillips told me. “They wouldn’t take the call.”

Eventually "feeling hopeless," Phillips made a few last-ditch phone calls, pleading and praying that someone might step forward. No one did and in the first week of September

several major polls dropped, the collective upshot of which proved more worrisome than anything Phillips had witnessed to date. One survey, from The Wall Street Journal, showed Trump and Biden essentially tied, but reported that 73 percent of registered voters considered Biden “too old” to run for president, with only 47 percent saying the same about Trump, who is just three and a half years younger. Another poll, conducted for CNN, showed that 67 percent of Democratic voters wanted someone other than Biden as the party’s nominee.

The Minnesota congressman, who appears to lack the ego of a US Senator, governor, or celebrity who might seek the presidency, seems to be the ultimate reluctant candidate. "In the run-up to his launch," Alberta remarks, "Phillips tried to speak with the president—to convey his respect before entering the race. On Thursday night, he said, the White House got back to him: Biden would not be talking to Phillips." Moreover, as Alberta interviewed him

the less energized Phillips seemed by the idea of dethroning Biden. He insisted that his first ad-making session focus on saluting the president, singing his opponent’s praises into the cameras in ways that defy all known methods of campaigning. He told me, unsolicited, that his “red line” is March 6, the day after Super Tuesday, at which point he will “wrap it up” and “get behind the president in a very big way” if his candidacy fails to gain traction. He repeatedly drifted back to the notion that he might unwittingly assist Trump’s victory next fall.

Despite an effective President, voters believe the recovery is faltering and the incumbent is too old to serve a second term. Nonetheless, signaling that he is expecting to quit the race before the spring equinox is no way for Phillips to run a campaign if he is determined to win. Yet, as bizarre as this effort is, it is equally bold.

So believing that President Biden's message has not been heard by voters and that he is hampered by age, a somewhat unknown member of the U.S. House has launched a campaign extremely treacherous for a Democratic hopeful. Alberta writes

In a year’s worth of conversations with other party leaders, Phillips told me, “everybody, without exception,” shares his fear about Joe Biden’s fragility—political and otherwise—as he seeks a second term. This might be hyperbole, but not by much: In my own recent conversations with party officials, it was hard to find anyone who wasn’t jittery about Biden. Phillips’s problem is that they refuse to say so on the record. Democrats claim to view Trump as a singular threat to the republic, the congressman complains, but for reasons of protocol and self-preservation they have been unwilling to go public with their concerns about Biden, making it all the more likely, in Phillips’s view, that the former president will return to office.

In the past fifteen months, Alberta explains, Phillips

name-dropped some Democratic governors on television and made personal calls to others, urging someone, anyone, to jump into the Democratic race. What he encountered, he thought, was a dangerous dissonance: Some of the president’s allies would tell him, in private conversations, to keep agitating, to keep recruiting, that Biden had no business running in 2024—but that they weren’t in a position to do anything about it.

In an underrated irony

What made this duplicity especially maddening to Phillips, he told me, is that Democrats have seen its pernicious effects on the other side of the political aisle. For four years during Trump’s presidency, Democrats watched their Republican colleagues belittle Trump behind closed doors, then praise him to their base, creating a mirage of support that ultimately made them captives to the cult of Trumpism.

Phillips made clear to Alberta that he found no equivalence between Biden and Trump. Certainly, there is no cult of Bidenism to rival Trumpism or even Obamism, the latter the Democratic Party's irrational fealty to President 44. Nonetheless- and despite the incumbent seemingly headed for defeat in twelve months- no Democrat stood up to challenge Biden even as, according to Phillips/Alberta, the Minnesotan was told "to keep agitating, to keep recruiting."

This would be baffling, if it were. But it is not, because the answer is hiding in plain sight.  While having written an otherwise excellent article, neither Alberta nor the courageous (if misguidedly centrist) Phillips will even mention, let alone acknowledge, why no Democrat who believes Biden is going to get beaten will challenge him.  In an important, conveniently ignored piece in early September, two NBC reporters found

Biden allies have not been shy about getting the word out that it would be self-defeating for ambitious white male candidates like Newsom to try to snatch the nomination away from Biden and Kamala Harris, who made history as the first woman and person of color to become vice president.

Consider the past: A string of Democratic candidates who failed to lock down Black voters went on to lose the race for the party's nomination — including Bernie Sanders in 2016 and Hillary Clinton in 2008.

“When you had people who were trying to test the waters” for a presidential bid, “the party rose up and made it clear to those individuals — who were mostly white men — that to disrespect the vice president would not be well received by women and people of color within the party,” said Karen Finney, a longtime Democratic strategist. “They got a little bit of a smack in the face.”

In the words of the legendary broadcaster Paul Harvey, "now you know the rest of the story."  Potential candidates were reluctant to stand up not because they adore the incumbent, nor only because it might hurt him in the general election. The major reason has been race.

Let's clarify: R-A-C-E. (Gender is playing a secondary role.) Karen Finney warned "the party rose up and made it clear to those individuals — who were mostly white men — that to disrespect the vice president would not be well received by women and people of color within the party. They got a little bit of a smack in the face."

She said the quiet part out loud and no one responded publicly. Cenk Uygur has claimed that he asked prominent Democrats to challenge Biden and no one took the bait. Dean Phillips evidently did all he could to get someone interested but found no takers. Uygur is now in the race, despite being ineligible for the office. Phillips declared for the office on Thursday, but reluctantly. His chance of being nominated is only slightly better than that of Uygur, not the least because he's more committed to defeating Trump than he is to his own candidacy.

Dean Phillips did not get the memo. To Finney and the party hierarchy, Kamala Harris is no more and no less than a black woman- so proceed with caution. Every Democratic politician has responded as required. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, and don't even think about getting in the way of Kamala Harris. The rather brave Dean Phillips has made his future as a Democrat extremely precarious, even more so than Joe Biden's future as a President.


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