So Charlie Dent is retiring from Congress. The Republican from Pennsylvania’s 15th district, which snakes its way from just east of Harrisburg up to Allentown and the New Jersey border, has had enough, apparently. "Since the government shutdown in 2013, my family and I have engaged in periodic discussions regarding my future in public service,” went part of his statement. In other words, he’s sick and tired of it.
One Republican down, liberals might think. But it isn’t quite that simple. Washington needs more Charlie Dents, not fewer. And yes, maybe even at the expense of having more Democrats. I’ll circle back to that below, but first, a little portrait of Dent and the district.
Thirty or so years ago, when moderate Republicanism was really a thing, Dent might not have qualified. He’s pro-life. He’s against government regulation of greenhouse gasses, according to Project VoteSmart. He’s against gun-control legislation.
On the other hand, he’s for same-sex marriage, he’s against Social Security privatization, and he voted against Obamacare repeal. So, definitely not one of the red-hots.
He’s one of the few Republicans who actually tries to govern and legislate, and he’s been pretty strongly anti-Trump. “I've worked to instill stability, certainty and predictability in Washington. I've fought to fulfill the basic functions of Government, like keeping the lights on and preventing default,” his statement continued. “Regrettably, that has not been easy given the disruptive outside influences that profit from increased polarization and ideological rigidity that leads to dysfunction, disorder and chaos.”
The district is more conservative than he is. Before Dent won the seat in 2005, it was held by Pat Toomey, now a senator, who is very conservative except for his position in support of gun background-check legislation. In the 38 years since 1979, a Democrat has held the seat just six years, during the 1990s. Charlie Cook, who rates the partisanship of congressional districts, calls it just R+4, which means it’s gettable for a Democrat. But the fact is that it hasn’t been got for a while now.
Donald Trump carried the district by 7.6 percent over Hillary Clinton. I don’t know the district well enough to call it “Trump County” in the way that southern West Virginia is Trump Country, and it does contain one city, Allentown. But at the very least, Trump support there is higher than average. It’s Trumpy enough that a local state legislator, Justin Simmons, announced recently that he was going to challenge Dent in a primary in 2018 because Dent has been insufficiently loyal to the MAGA cause. The way these things work, this means Simmons saw some encouraging polling, and there’s some money behind an effort to get the RINO Dent out.
Sure enough, when Dent announced his retirement, there was no small amount of gloating in the national right-wing press and in the district. Read this informative column by John L. Micek of pennlive.com for the details on all that. His headline reads, “With Charlie Dent’s retirement, Trumpism claims its first scalp—and it won’t be the last.”
Dent is the twelfth Republican House member so far this year to announce he’s hanging it up. Many of the 12 are from districts where a Democrat can win—some districts in south Florida and New Jersey in particular. And of course I hope the Democrats win them all, because I hope the Democrats take back the House to stop all the awful legislation Trump and Mitch McConnell want to pass, and to perform real oversight on this corrupt administration and help (or stay out of the way of) the Russia investigation instead of working to sabotage it, as Trey Gowdy is doing now.
But at the same time, it’s worth thinking about the consequences of a Washington without Charlie Dents or Ileana Ros-Lehtinens, the Miami representative who’s also been solidly anti-Trump. A congressional Republican Party that is reduced to its (sorry for this, but…) Trump rump would be a pretty nasty sight to behold.
First of all, if they lose the majority, Paul Ryan will be out as speaker. Good riddance, you say. Well, yeah. But stop and think about who’d take his place. With the party caucus reduced to, say, 205 or so, and with all the Dents and Ros-Lehtinens gone, what kind of person would win an internal election for minority leader? A serious rightie, that’s who. They might not go full Louie Gohmert on us, but it would likely be someone who lives in his neck of the ideological woods.
“Obstruction” doesn’t begin to describe what this minority would do. And remember, they’d be the minority only in the House. The GOP would still have the Senate and the White House. So the Democrats, beyond being able to block and investigate, won’t be able to do anything affirmative. And it will just be daily trench warfare.
I’m sitting here trying to think of a historical precedent for this Trump rump House GOP. There aren’t many. I hate to say this, because of the obvious ominous overtones, but the closest thing I can come up with are the Democratic House caucuses of… yep, the late 1850s. After the Democrats lost 35 seats in 1858 (and 1859, because congressional elections weren’t regularized then), they were pretty much down to the hard-shell racists, with a handful of Northern big-city machine types.
I’m not saying we’re inching our way in that direction. But I’m not saying we’re not, either. I’ve written many times that what our political system needs more than anything else is a real reborn movement of moderate Republicanism. Only when Republicans feel heat from the center and not just from the right will their behavior change.
I’m happy for the Democrats to pick up these seats if they can, but I’m aware that they would come at a price.