The dig wasn’t just some off-the-cuff moment. It was illustrative of a new strategy Phillips is seeking to deploy as he takes on Biden in the Democratic primary. The man oft described as a Minnesota moderate is trying to get his underdog campaign off the ground by hitting the president on issues that place him out of step with younger and more progressive voters.
In addition to staking out a more liberal position on marijuana legalization than Biden, who endorses decriminalization, Phillips has harshly criticized Israel this month in its offensive against Hamas and called for a ceasefire if the Palestinian militant group releases all its hostages.
“I think this is actually, despite the great misery and tragedy, that this is perhaps the best time maybe in the last 75 years to put an end to this nonsense,” Phillips said in an interview. “But I don’t think the same people doing it the same way are going to be able to, from the West Bank to the West Wing. Period.”
In the coming weeks, Phillips’ campaign plans to release an economic platform, one that his aides describe as “pro-worker.” His team told POLITICO that it will call for universal health care, paid family leave, a higher minimum wage and the reinstatement of the expanded child tax credit. He will put out a proposal to deal with the high cost of education and student debt as well, his aides said, who added that some of Phillips’ policies will be highlighted in his campaign’s television ads.
Phillips has also hired Jeff Weaver, a longtime senior adviser to progressive leader Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), to help steer his campaign. And his team is bashing Biden for not doing more to pass a $15 minimum wage.
Phillips insists that he’s merely looking for “the best policy” and not trying to exploit the president’s current struggles with young, progressive and independent voters — a problem deepened by the Israel-Hamas war. As for the weed, he said he didn’t “literally” mean Biden should smoke it.
Still, his appeals to the base — common as they are in presidential politics — are not without larger repercussions or risks to Biden.
Biden remains the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination. But he does have major vulnerabilities with key constituencies: voters who view him as too old and young people and liberals, among others, who are disappointed by his presidency. Phillips’ campaign is now targeting those weak points: making the case for generational change and honing in on the president’s disconnect from his progressive base.
It’s an approach that has prompted eye-rolling from Biden’s allies, who call it an opportunistic ideological about-face from a congressman they say is manufacturing policy differences with the president.
“You look at his voting record, and Dean is not a sort of progressive standard-bearer in the U.S. House,” said Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.), a member of the Biden campaign’s national advisory board who added that he hasn’t “seen Dean at our Progressive Caucus committee meetings or events.”
Phillips’ history of embracing moderation is well documented. He joined the Problem Solvers Caucus and has tried, elsewhere, to get to Biden’s right. He has criticized the president for not doing more to secure the border and said that U.S. special forces should perhaps play a role in rescuing American hostages kidnapped by Hamas. He got into a contentious back-and-forth at a town hall with a voter who attacked him for not initially supporting a ceasefire in the Middle East. And during his first congressional run, Phillips said he didn’t back Minneapolis’ $15 minimum wage “on an island” (though he later voted in favor of it federally).
For those reasons, operatives in the progressive space say they’re skeptical about his current approach.
“Dean Phillips is reading the polls and sees a major opportunity to draw voters into his tent based on a pro-ceasefire message that is more critical of Israel’s far-right government than Biden has been,” said Waleed Shahid, a progressive strategist and former aide to Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. “But Phillips has been running as more conservative than Biden, so I’m not sure the mixed ideological message will work if a major divide in the electorate is between younger progressives and older risk-averse voters.”
Weaver, a senior strategist for Phillips, pushed back on the idea that the congressman is a conservative Democrat, pointing to the fact that he has voted with Biden 100 percent of the time. “Dean Phillips is not Joe Manchin, I can tell you that,” he said.
That voting record has been cited by Biden aides, too, as a reason to question what Phillips is actually trying to achieve with his primary challenge. But Weaver said there is an opportunity to win over young, progressive and independent voters in the Democratic primary, arguing that they are dissatisfied with Biden on a number of issues ranging from the Israel-Hamas war to the minimum wage.
“The minimum wage was one of the early issues that was sort of thrown overboard under the excuse that the Senate parliamentarian wasn’t going to let them do it,” he said. “Dean Phillips for president, he would not be letting an unelected bureaucrat in the Senate decide whether people are going to get a higher minimum wage or not.” (Biden did, however, issue an executive order raising wages to $15, including raises tied to inflation, for many federal workers and contractors.)
Phillips said another major policy difference between him and Biden is “the lack of recognition or intention to address what is the single biggest issue in the country right now, which is affordability.” Biden has taken steps to address inflation, which has cooled recently, such as releasing oil from the country’s strategic reserve, signing legislation to lower prescription drug prices and targeting so-called “junk fees.”
It’s too early to tell whether Phillips’ strategy of criticizing Biden from the left on key issues will help him gain traction. But he isn’t making much of a mark yet. In a recent CNN poll of New Hampshire, which is running an unsanctioned Democratic contest, 65 percent of likely primary voters said they will write in Biden’s name. Only 10 percent said they will support Phillips.
But Phillips has argued he is just getting started introducing himself to voters. His team said he is ramping up his campaign now, hiring staff in New Hampshire, holding a 10-day tour in the state next month that includes stops at colleges, and opening an office in Manchester soon.
Biden’s campaign declined to comment for this story.
While Biden aides have expressed indifference to Phillips’ bid, it’s clear his allies are taking the primary challenge seriously.
They are backing a write-in campaign for Biden in New Hampshire, where Phillips is grounding his bid.
But there have been subtler moves as well. After Phillips announced on Nov. 14 that he would attend Charleston Democrats’ annual Blue Jamboree in South Carolina as a sponsor and a speaker, the rest of the roster switched. Rep. Jim Clyburn — who was listed on the original schedule as a featured speaker — was, on Nov. 16, suddenly billed as the presidential primary speaker on behalf of the Biden campaign. Two days later, the day of the event, Steve Benjamin, White House director of public engagement and former Columbia mayor, was listed as a speaker, too.
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