When Rep. Charlie Dent announced he was retiring from Congress, few were surprised.
In recent years, the seven-term moderate Republican from Pennsylvania had grown tired of Washington’s dysfunction—in particular the inability of Republicans and Democrats to drop political gamesmanship and come together to fulfill the legislature’s most basic responsibilities. His decision to not seek re-election in 2018 was accelerated over the last eight months—in part, he says—because of President Donald Trump, for whom Dent did not vote in last year’s election.
“I’m concerned about these growing trends of isolationism, protectionism and nativism—and at times there’s a touch of nihilism in all of this,” Dent told The Daily Beast in an interview. “And I think these are not attributes of a great nation. We as a country need to get to a better place on those matters.”
Since Trump’s inauguration, Dent has clashed with Trump on a host of issues. He criticizes the president’s “economically isolationist tendencies on trade” and his “restrictionist approach” on immigration. He calls the president’s travel ban “ill-considered and horribly executed,” for example, and fought hard against Trump when he was pushing for the passage of the American Health Care Act—the House version of an Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill.
Ahead of the AHCA’s eventual passage, Dent took his concerns straight to Trump—a man who he believes focuses too heavily on personalities in his approach to politics, rather than substantive policy.
“I was in two meetings with the president. One went well, the other not so much,” Dent said with a laugh. “We just came down on different sides of that. I was opposed to the House bill, and he spoke negatively of the House bill after the fact—said it was mean. So I don’t know. Go figure.”
Dent was suggesting that Trump decided to lobby support for the bill when he thought it was in his own interest, and soured on it when he realized it could be more of a political ticking time-bomb.
Dent’s pushback against the president on the merits of the AHCA was something that would earn most elected Republicans a primary challenger at their next election. In his meetings with Trump, Dent suggested fixes to the AHCA that went entirely against Republican orthodoxy: that some of the Obamacare taxes remain in place, that the Medicaid aid cuts be softened, and that a provision defunding Planned Parenthood be scrapped.
“He wasn’t happy that I was not supporting the bill, and he let me know it,” Dent said. “He said it was pretty clear it would undermine tax reform if we didn’t pass that bill and that I was going to cause great damage to the Republican party. And he blamed me. OK, but it didn’t change my opinion.”
Unlike Trump, Dent doesn’t make his criticisms personal. He decries the shift toward personality-based politics that he believes predates Trump, but has taken center stage in the Trump era—and when he agrees with the president, he does so enthusiastically.
Dent applauded Trump’s recent agreement with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to combine Hurricane Harvey relief funds, a debt ceiling increase, and a government funding mechanism into one piece of legislation. The deal was met with disgust from conservatives.
“It was absolutely the right call,” Dent said. “There are not 218 republican votes to extend the debt ceiling for three months, six months, 18 months. So clearly the Democrats had some leverage and the president recognized that. So for the guys in my party that are complaining about the deal… the reason why we got the deal that we got is because a lot of our guys wouldn’t vote for a debt ceiling anyway.”
Dent, who hails from what he calls the GOP’s “governing wing,” was referring to the party’s ideological purists—those who, in his view, are “very good at telling us what they can never do because it violates their principles.” In recent years, for example, Republican lawmakers have demanded that modest spending cuts be tied to any increase in the federal debt ceiling.
Dent co-chairs the group of moderate GOP lawmakers known as the Tuesday Group, and has consistently been willing to buck the party’s principles in favor of checking off agenda items. In his interview with The Daily Beast, Dent went off on the hardliners for voting against the Trump-Schumer-Pelosi deal and then shifting the blame to Republican leaders.
“I heard some people after the fact who were all against the deal and they didn’t blame the president. They blamed our leadership,” he said. “No, those guys should be blaming themselves. Because they won’t vote for one. But they complain about it.”
To be sure, the conservative hardliners in the House Freedom Caucus have gained immense power and leverage over the years. They successfully forced out embattled House Speaker John Boehner in 2015, and have threatened to shut down the government if their demands for spending cuts aren’t met. Their votes were critical for the passage of the AHCA, which many of them threatened to vote against on the grounds that it wasn’t conservative enough. Dent refers to them as obstructionists who remain “cohesive as a unit” to derail any negotiations with the other side.
“They can’t pass what they want, but they can stop things from happening,” Dent said, referencing the government shutdown in 2013 as the first incident that sparked his consideration of retirement.
“Some of the frustrations predated Donald Trump,” Dent added. “The difficulty of enacting just the most basic fundamental items of governance—from keeping the government open to not defaulting on our nation’s obligations, and other similar things like budget agreements and just necessary bills that had to be enacted or re-authorized—these types of matters were becoming extraordinarily difficult to enact.”
Dent was mum on his plans for the immediate future, but isn’t ruling out another run for political office in the future. And he’s confident that his district—now a toss-up for 2018—will remain in Republican hands. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania’s 15th district by eight points in 2016, and Dent won by 20 points.
Democrats are seeking to capitalize not only on Dent’s seat, but on other House seats currently occupied by retiring moderate Republicans in order to regain control of the lower chamber. Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA) announced his retirement just before Dent, while Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said earlier this year she would pass on a re-election bid.
With Dent on his way out, other lawmakers who have a reputation for dealmaking believe they’ve lost a key ally. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), known in Congress as a conservative but pragmatic and consummate dealmaker, called him a “go-to guy” on key legislation.
“He’s a guy of enormously good quality and the kind of person who makes things happen in divided government or in closely balanced situations where you’ve got to pass legislation with Republican and Democratic votes,” Cole told The Daily Beast. “He’s always a leader in that regard.”
The praise for Dent extended across the aisle, too, following his announcement earlier this month. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) took Dent’s retirement as an opportunity to encourage lawmakers to look to the Pennsylvania Republican as an example, calling him “a true public servant and exactly the type of conservative willing to work across the aisle that Congress needs to function again.”
While there were no official Tuesday Group meetings to offer counsel to Dent and others who were mulling retirement, Dent consulted some of his colleagues before reaching a final decision.
“I told him I would let him win every paddleball game that we play if he stays. But that didn’t do it,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a close friend of Dent’s and frequent Trump critic, told The Daily Beast. “I did [encourage him to stay]. But it was too late. I understand his reasoning but this place is not going to be the same without him.”