Phillips would know from those quiet rooms.
The third-term Democrat from suburban Minneapolis, a gelato company executive before running for Congress, was one of the few lawmakers last year to say his party should turn to a new generation in the next presidential race. And since the Democrats’ unexpectedly strong midterm performance, scarcely few have followed suit, while every potential Biden successor has fallen in line behind his yet-to-be-announced candidacy. Meanwhile, the private conversations about the wisdom of nominating an octogenarian and despair over who could take Biden’s place have hardly subsided.
“It’s fear, plain and simple,” Phillips explained of both the lack of Democratic officials calling for a new nominee and reluctance of other candidates to step forward. “People are focused on self-preservation and their aspirations.“
He has only praise for Biden, and not just of the Minnesota Nice sort. “He’s a president of great competence and success, I admire the heck out of President Biden,” Phillips said. “And if he were 15-20 years younger it would be a no-brainer to nominate him, but considering his age it’s absurd we’re not promoting competition but trying to extinguish it.”
This is where it gets delicate — or perhaps will soon in caucus meetings and between floor votes.
Republican officials were reluctant to criticize Donald Trump when he launched his first re-election effort, even though party elites barely tolerated him, because their voters overwhelmingly favored the former president. Democrats today reflect the mirror image: polls indicate many of their voters want a new nominee but few lawmakers say as much because it could create awkwardness with their fellow leaders, who don’t want to speak out.
Phillips reminded me that he criticized Republican lawmakers who would say very different things about Trump when the tape recorders were off and the beer tap was on.
“Yes, the circumstances are different, and the presidents are very different, but it’s your responsibility when you represent constituents to speak your truth and not hide it,” he said of his Democratic colleagues.
Phillips’s message to those in his party who share his feelings about 2024: “Say it out loud.”
To which I would say: don’t hold your breath.
My conversations with a variety of Democratic lawmakers and a number of the party’s governors, who were in Washington last week for National Governor’s Association’s winter meeting, bear out Phillips’s case that he has ample company in his view of Biden — but that they are as muted about it as he is loud.
There was the senator who said few Democrats in the chamber want Biden to run again but that the party had to devise “an alignment of interest” with the president to get him off the “narcotic” of the office; there was the governor who mused about just how little campaigning Biden would be able to do; and there was the House member who, after saying that, of course, Democrats should renominate the president told me to turn off my phone and then demanded to know who else was out there and said Harris wasn’t an option.
My favorite, though, was the Democratic lawmaker who recalled speaking to Jill Biden and, hoping to plant a seed about a one-term declaration of victory, told her how her husband should be celebrated for saving democracy. When I asked if I could use any of that on the record, the lawmaker shot back: “absolutely not.”
The only other Democratic lawmaker willing to publicly call for a new nominee in 2024 was Phillips’s fellow Minnesotan, Rep. Angie Craig, who also said the same last year.
“I said it, I still believe it, but if the president chooses to run again I’ll respect that decision and I’ll support him,” Craig told me. She and Phillips both told me they never heard from the White House after making their initial statements, a reminder of the soft touch from this president.
Another reminder of why Biden enjoys goodwill from Democratic leaders came more recently, when the president did telephone Craig — after she was assaulted in an elevator. Biden called the congresswoman soon after, checking in on her and wishing her a happy birthday. As Craig put it to me before the attack took place: “Joe Biden is a really good man.”
But it’s hardly just Biden’s decency and gift for personal connection that keeps Democrats at bay.
Remarkable as it may sound for an 80-year-old, self-diagnosed “gaffe machine,” he has become the political equivalent of a safe harbor, at least in the minds of his lieutenants and many party leaders.
Biden’s team is eying an April announcement (the same month he began his campaign in 2019), weighing who should run the campaign and their super PAC. (California-based Democratic strategist Addisu Demissie will take a leadership role at one of the two entities.) The Biden folks believe that Trump or any other Republican nominee will be reluctant to work with the Commission on Presidential Debates, lessening the chances, and risk, of a head-to-head debate.
“We know what we have and we know the stakes in 2024, we cannot lose,” Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina told me. “And that was the thinking of nominating Joe Biden in 2020 to start with. It worked then, why is it not going to work now?”
Saluting his candidacy is publicly framed as simply backing an incumbent president, dog bites man, nothing to see here.
In truth, it gets them out of a potentially messy primary, buys them time on his eventual, and perhaps equally messy, succession and helps keep the focus on Trump and the Republicans, which is both the adhesive that binds their coalition and their best calling card for the broader electorate: See, we’re not those guys.
“Politics has become not about what you want but what you don’t want,” as Jim Hodges, the former South Carolina governor, put it.
There’s something more cynical at work with the public show support of Biden, however. It’s an exercise in escape-hatch politics (a new sort of the Democrats’ politics of evasion).
By simply stating their support for the president’s reelection, they may be suppressing their misgivings but they’re also avoiding the inevitable follow-up question: Well, are you for the vice president?
When nearly a dozen Democratic governors lined up for a news conference to trumpet their midterm gains, eager to take a turn at the microphone, the voluble bunch grew quiet when I asked if they thought Harris should be nominated without a primary were Biden not to run.
“I don’t think we’re going to go there on that one, the president is running,” said Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, the chair of the Democratic Governors Association.
When I asked if any of the other governors wanted to speak to the question, they all stayed silent until Murphy said “we’re good” and the governors broke out in a round of nervous laughter.
In fact, Harris would not face an uncontested primary and some of the very governors behind the microphone would likely challenge her.
“The field would be really large and really unruly and really divisive around racial and gender lines,” said Howard Wolfson, the longtime Democratic strategist, dipping into his French to say: “After Biden, the deluge.”
This is all to say that the only topic Democrats may be less happy to discuss than actuarial tables and Biden’s second term is his vice president. To express their concerns about a woman of Jamaican and Indian descent touches, to put it mildly, on highly sensitive matters.
More to the point, Democrats have seen what happens when anyone in their party openly criticizes Harris — they’re accused by activists and social-media critics of showing, at best, racial and gender insensitivity. This doesn’t stifle concerns about her prospects, of course, it just pushes them further underground or into the shadows of background quotes.
Such as this, from a House Democrat: “The Democrats who will need to speak out on her are from the Congressional Black Caucus, no white member is going to do it.”
Members of the CBC, however, are either supportive of Harris or no more willing to give public voice to their unease with the vice president than the above lawmaker.
One senior Black lawmaker, Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), was more candid than most in discussing the party’s calculation behind rallying to Biden.
“He’s the president,” Beatty told me. “And right now he says he’s going to be our candidate. And people will fall in line because he can win the general election.”
Putting a finer point on it, she said: “Biden is the guy that can beat Trump.”
That argument, however, captures the gamble the president and his on-the-record allies appear to be making. What if Trump isn’t the nominee? Will Democrats then regret not opening up the competition and denying Republicans the generational contrast many in the GOP crave?
“If Donald Trump tomorrow announced he was moving to Elba, and would stay there, there would be a very different conversation in the Democratic Party,” said Wolfson.
But the gentleman from the shores of Lake Minnetonka wants that conversation now.
“What I’m trying to remind my colleagues and the country is that competition is good, and the absence of competition is unhealthy for democracy,” said Phillips, adding that “not providing platforms to aspiring leaders is antithetical to strong leadership.”
As for those in the party who are alarmed about the vice president and her prospects in the general election, he flashed a hint of irritation in his Midwestern mien.
“That’s why we have primaries,” said Phillips. “Look at how many members of Congress succeeded through primaries, for God’s sake.”