Charlie Dent’s nightmare began 28 months ago, in Chocolate World. On a pale weekend in January 2015, in Hershey, Pennsylvania, House and Senate Republicans convened at the Hershey Lodge for the party’s annual retreat. It was the first time in 10 years that both chambers would gather simultaneously. Dent was playing host, of sorts. As co-chair of the 50-odd coalition of Republican House moderates known as the Tuesday Group, the 57-year-old congressman had lobbied personally for the summit to come to Hershey, in his home district. And in a subtle acknowledgment of his group’s rising stature in the party, Dent had received his wish.
As Dent faced the press in the wood-paneled lodge, the congressman ventriloquized the GOP’s ambitions for the coming term. He predicted that the previous era of internal squabble, government shutdowns and fruitless attempts to repeal Obamacare would all be swiftly dispensed with. “I hope that we walk out of here, sometime tomorrow, with a sense of what we want to accomplish in the next 100 days,” Dent told the Reading Eagle. “We’re having a lot of discussion about political reality.”
But political reality was shifting, literally, beneath his feet. That day, on another floor of the Hershey Lodge, a rogue alliance had convened for the first time, a new gang to rival Dent’s own: The Freedom Caucus, a now 30-member group that would explode, in spectacular display, the moderate renaissance dreamed by Dent and his like-minded colleagues. The Freedom Caucus would dominate the 2015-16 term, unleashing a small tempest with its let-it-burn procedural style and eventually claiming John Boehner’s scalp.
A lot can change in two years. In 2017, it’s suddenly Dent and his almost tediously polite, be-reasonable style who is becoming a Capitol Hill bomb-thrower—vying to upend the best-laid legislative plans of his Freedom Caucus rivals and the president they hope to co-opt for their conservative agenda. Since President Donald Trump took office, Dent has lambasted the administration and House leadership on health care, the budget, the ill-fated travel ban and most of all, the ongoing Russia investigation. In the process, he has propelled the Tuesday Group into newfound relevance, say both his rivals and cheerleaders. Dan Holler, of the conservative Heritage Action group, says that, thanks largely to Dent’s showmanship, “I don’t think there can be any doubt that there’s more focus and awareness of the role the Tuesday Group plays in the conference. … I can’t remember the last time reporters staked out a meeting of the Tuesday Group.”
Dent’s moment of reinvention came this spring, when he played a central role in torpedoing the initial Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill. The standoff dealt a temporary blow to the president and winning a fleeting but politically significant victory for moderates like Dent, who maintain that Obamacare is more worthy of tweaking than scrapping. Chris Borick, a professor at Muhlenberg College who has been monitoring Dent’s career for decades, says, “That was a very important moment for the Tuesday Group and for Dent. They suddenly recognized, in this new political reality in Trump’s Washington, that they are suddenly a significant force, perhaps as much as the Freedom Caucus.”
Until, that is, the Freedom Caucus struck back. It unfolded like a literary twist: Dent’s rivals in the Freedom Caucus formed a furtive alliance with Rep. Tom MacArthur of New Jersey, Dent’s own Tuesday Group co-chair, whose last-minute deal secured the revised bill’s passage. Dent called the vote a “terrible mistake.”
All this marks a new turn for House moderates. In years past, they might quietly thumb the legislative scales to little fanfare. In the Trump era, though, Dent and his allies have brought the fight into broad daylight—and raised a weighty question for the direction of the Republican Party. With a party leader—the president—so utterly unmoored from ideology, who will prevail in the Trump era: The pragmatists, who are convinced of the party’s need to broaden its appeal, or its purists, equally uncertain and heartened by Trump’s ideological opacity as means to finally achieve their Tea Party dreams?
“Everybody is trying to figure out the dynamics that are going to dictate how the House Republican Conference acts,” Holler says. And at the center of the unfolding clash in the party—over health care, infrastructure and tax reform—is the quiet congressman from central Pennsylvania.
Dent doesn’t waste time getting comfortable, still squirming in the upholstered couch of his large office, before he attempts to situate himself in history. “I’m completely persuaded that there’s a political realignment occurring in our country. And no one today can say, with any accuracy, how it will sort itself out. But it’s happening. Even if you can’t completely explain it, it’s happening.” He says this with a wan smile, and then, a minute later: “The question is, does he want to pursue a center-right pragmatic agenda, or an illiberal populist one?”
He, of course, is Trump, the man who occupies much of Dent’s thinking these days. Trump’s margin of victory was 7 points in Dent’s district, which stretches out from central Pennsylvania as far east as Allentown. It doesn’t seem to bother the congressman. “I work with [the president] wherever I can,” Dent says. “But if he’s moving in the wrong direction, I’ll have to serve as a check or balance. … At this point, I believe this is less about base politics and more about what’s right for the country.”
Dent, who voted for independent Evan McMullin in the general election, has been unsparing in his comments. He once called Trump’s morals “indefensible.” He’s skewered Trump’s travel ban, empathizing with its targets and citing “the unfairness of the order.” He’s called Trump’s falsehoods on the nonexistent Obama wiretap of Trump Tower “a detriment to the office.” Dent’s remarks strike a register both hard-hitting and soft-spoken, which gives them the flavor of Washington truth-telling. Network producers race to book him—"Face the Nation," "Meet the Press," CNN, FOX, MSNBC. The firing of James Comey offered no better case study: The sun had barely risen before Dent was beamed into "Morning Joe," offering a broadside harsher than most in the Republican Conference. “It’s now harder to resist calls for an independent investigation,” says Dent, who later called the move “confounding” and “troubling.” He added, “It’s pretty tough to fire the guy who’s investigating your campaign.”
The ongoing Russia investigation provides a frequent source of criticism, and airtime, for Dent, a Russia hawk whose time as a masters student in international relations in the 1980s focused largely on the Soviet Union. As we speak, news has just broken that Trump has suggested, in an interview with the New York Times, he might fire special prosecutor Robert Mueller. “I can’t overstate what a mistake that would be to fire Robert Mueller at this point,” Dent tells me. “I’m kind of mystified about those comments yesterday.”
Dent is not the first to sense political opportunity on Trump’s stumbles; Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Will Hurd of Texas have made similar and noteworthy public stands. But few have matched their rhetoric with action in the legislative arena like Dent. During the first health care fight, Dent endured weeks of browbeating by House leaders. In one episode, Dent’s staff planned to release a withering statement against repeal, at 5 p.m. sharp, on a crucial day when leaders were whipping votes for a final tally. House leaders were not amused; Dent was told to put the release on hiatus, and was summoned to Speaker Paul Ryan’s office at 8 p.m., where leaders worked him over for two hours, until the meeting ended shortly after 10 p.m. “And we sent out that press release at 10:15,” Dent likes to deadpan.
Not long after, Trump and Dent would butt heads in person. Days after the news release, Dent was summoned to the White House for a meeting in the Cabinet Room, when Trump singled him out for “destroying the Republican Party.” As the room’s eyes fell on him, Dent would not budge; nor would his Tuesday Group caucus, days later, as Trump was dealt a humiliating setback—albeit a temporary one.
Dent has seemed to relish his role as gadfly, sometimes with an exceeding zeal. Days after he stuck it to Trump in the White House, he spoke at the Pennsylvania Press Club, in Harrisburg. Leaning jauntily on a lectern, Dent poked at Republican leadership, lauded the Tuesday Group philosophy and taunted rivals. He dinged the president on foreign policy and trade. He roasted former Freedom Caucus Republican Mick Mulvaney, now director of the Office of Management and Budget. “Hey Mick! You can’t vote for any budget. So we might as well make you the budget director,” Dent quipped, to laughs (still grinning, he followed with, “We’re friendly and we talk.”) He treated the crowd to the story of enduring hours in the speaker’s office, refusing to give in.
Toward the end of the event, a constituent asked Dent if the Tuesday Group would have more leverage in 2017. “Oh, more,” Dent mused. “A lot more.” He went on, “I think we have a lot more leverage now. And I don’t want to speak for the president. But I suspect after last week, he probably feels that way, too.”
The Freedom Caucus then returned the favor, embarrassing Dent and poaching his own co-chair. But when I talk to Dent weeks later, he seems to feel redeemed by health care repeal’s troubles in the Senate. (“I’m not so sure that advancing deeply unpopular legislation is necessarily a political winner,” he says.) And he seems to have learned a lesson from his own setback in the House: “The Freedom Caucus is more ideologically doctrinaire and cohesive,” he says. “That was one of the mistakes of this negotiation. In these negotiations, leadership only generally speaks to the no votes.”
Dent appears to be laying out a case for the doctrinaire moderate—a political oxymoron, perhaps, but one his supporters and detractors describe as a smart play. Holler acknowledges, “[The Tuesday Groupers] certainly have the potential to be effective. The question is, can Dent find the unity and purpose in what they’re trying to accomplish?” Dent himself appeared to be moving in that direction, when he coolly watched MacArthur leave the Tuesday Group caucus, whose members are furious at his betrayal on health care. “People think that moderate means soft,” says George McElwee, his former chief of staff. He ties together the stories of Dent in the West Wing and the speaker’s office, resisting their pressure with evident glee. “That’s the thing about Charlie. He’s redefining that: Moderates can also be tough.”
Dent has three big goals. He’s eyeing progress on the budget, tax reform and infrastructure—areas where his legislative strategies rely on the center-right members in the Senate who balked at the leadership’s Obamacare repeal plans. “If the Senate passes a bill that’s more receptive to our center-right members, then I suspect the very people who were just appeased on the hard-right will be nowhere to be found,” Dent reasons. On tax reform and infrastructure, Dent explains, “Our members also sit on primary committees of jurisdiction—Appropriations, Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce.” It all felt a touch mafioso: The Tuesday Group, he implies, is everywhere.
The next clash will be the 2018 budget. There, Dent will get his next shot to do battle with Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director (and one of the first attendants at the secret Hershey meeting). The House Budget Committee has called for $200 billion in cuts in entitlement and other spending; in early July, Dent led 20 House members, mostly Tuesdayers, in a public letter opposing the staunch cuts. Days later, the Freedom Caucus issued a similarly diametric warning. The budget is shaping up like health care: Both sides are playing the same strategy of brinkmanship, withholding their votes unless demands are met.
At the core of Dent’s optimism is the notion that the rest of 2017 could unfold any number of ways. In the months following the Hershey summit, the Freedom Caucus seemed to explode out of nowhere—why not the Tuesday Group in Trump’s Washington? “Our group,” Dent assures me, with an indecipherable smile, “will very much be needed.”
Dent’s mid-Atlantic brand of moderatism might fit awkwardly in the politics of the House. But it fits perfectly well in Pennsylvania, where aisle-crossers with cross-party appeal—politicians like John Heinz or Bob Casey—have long dominated statewide politics.
His background, too, shows glints of the inchoate narratives that made Trumpism possible. He grew up in blue-collar Allentown in the 1960s; his father worked for Bethlehem Steel for 30 years, before being forced out as the plant eventually shuttered, in the early 1990s. It was around this time that Dent began his political career in the Pennsylvania state Legislature, first as a representative, then as a state senator.
In 2004, Dent won the 15th Congressional District, vacated by now-Senator Pat Toomey. In Congress, Dent built a reputation in the Bush years for pro-growth politics, one that was amenable to government spending and abidingly moderate on social issues. On the Hill, he cultivated a Washington office known for churning out young staffers who enter as conservative warriors and leave their stint with “Charlie” proudly embracing the word “moderate.” At home, Dent’s veneration of moderation is curiously beloved—even as his voters went for Trump.
“In his district, he’s just an institution,” says Neil Oxman, a veteran Democratic campaign strategist who has worked on statewide campaigns in Pennsylvania. “Charlie is the Lehigh Valley. Charlie is Allentown. He’s Bethlehem. Because he’s so popular.” In 2004, Dent’s district was a tossup; it’s since been gerrymandered to include an odd mélange of independently minded Republicans to the north, industrialist interests to the south (like Hershey), and the blue-collar politics of Allentown to the east. The district starts in central Pennsylvania and gestures toward the New Jersey border, encompassing nearly every stripe of Pennsylvania’s famously non-ideological politics. To hammer this home, Dent is fond of reminding listeners that his district has more registered Democrats than Republicans.
In 2007, Dent became co-chair of the Tuesday Group—a natural fit for the mild-mannered congressman. The caucus, at that point, offered barely a hint of its former influence. It had been founded in 1994, in reaction to Newt Gingrich’s arrival on Capitol Hill. That year, a group of roughly 40 moderate members met in the basement of the Capitol, plotting each week how to push back against the conservative revolution fomenting in the caucus. The members found modest success—resisting cuts to education and science appropriations, for instance. But their moderate districts, in some ways, proved their own undoing; beginning in 2006, as Democrats picked them off during the Bush years, the group lost clout.
For the next decade, the Tuesday Group muddled through under Dent’s leadership, only occasionally having enough impact to make the news. Then came Trump, a man so utterly opposite from Dent in style that their dichotomy seems almost mathematical. “Dent thinks Trump is an idiot,” Oxman tells me. “It’s the ultimate offense to who Dent always has been.”
To best understand Dent—and the almost congenital eagerness to criticize his party’s leadership and its president, when it offers him little political advantage—friends and enemies of the congressman point to the same story: His introduction to American politics occurred when he witnessed his aunt defenestrated by a revolution on the right.
In 1964, when he was 4 years old, Dent’s paternal aunt, Mary Dent Crisp, left the family in Allentown, and restarted her life in Arizona. She lived down the street from Barry Goldwater, and later joined his campaign. After decades climbing the party ranks, including developing a close relationship with Gerald Ford, Dent Crisp became co-chair of the Republican National Committee, the first woman to hold that role, in 1977.
By 1980, Dent Crisp began warning contemporaries that a new right-wing coalition, embodied in the persona of Ronald Reagan, would spell death for the party. She painted Reagan as a right-wing monster, and tried in vain to lead a counterreformation—making a vocal case in a dramatic speech at the 1980 Republican Convention for abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment. The party, she said, is “suffering from serious internal sickness.” Reagan fired back abruptly, telling reporters that Dent Crisp “should look to herself and see how loyal she’s been to the Republican Party.”
Dent Crisp’s career in Republican politics ended in humiliation: She left the convention early, resigned shortly after, and went to work for John Anderson—a founding member of the Wednesday Group, the intellectual predecessor of the Tuesdayers. Charlie Dent graduated from college that year.
Dent is amused at this story but downplays its relevance. He chuckles tenuously and says, “I have no idea what my aunt would say today” about Trump. But Dent does sound eerily like her, warning that the Republican Party is veering off course at the precise moment of its supposed ascension.
This time, however, Dent is calculating that he could have an advantage over his conservative rivals—in the president himself.
A few times in our conversations, the congressman seems to be speaking directly to the president—selling himself to the perpetual “winner” as the safer bet between two paths. “Donald Trump is not an ideologue—he’s a pragmatist,” Dent says. The administration’s troubles so far, he reasons, are the result of “tension between a pragmatic, non-ideological president and the significantly doctrinaire” wing of the party. He sounds almost sympathetic. “It’s important for the administration to channel the president’s pragmatic nature,” he says. “And I guess you can make the case that the president has a choice to make.”
Will Trump choose the moderates? “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Dent says. “I just know you’ve got to be ahead in the last inning—that’s what matters. It’s the guy who’s ahead in the last inning who wins the game.”