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Ex-Rep. Charlie Dent offers revealing, behind-the-scenes look into politics of Congress

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LehighValleyNews.com politics reporter Tom Shortell, left, speaks with former U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, during a LehighValley+ Live event at the PBS39 studios in Bethlehem.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - In modern American politics, being labeled a moderate is almost a dirty word. The 24-hour news cycle and the primary system rewards candidates who hew toward the extremes of their party.

It's why people who barely follow American politics may know about Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colorado, and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Michigan, but not about Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., even though he's been in Congress since before either of his colleagues were born.

  • Former U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent talked politics during an exclusive LehighValley+ event last week
  • Dent said he advised House leaders during his tenure to marginalize ultraconservatives who made governing difficult
  • During a 2015 leadership struggle, Dent said Democrats approached him about a coalition government

So it raises a question. How did Republican Charlie Dent, one of the better known moderates in recent American politics, spend 27 years representing the Lehigh Valley at the state and federal levels?

The district certainly helped. Unlike most of the country or even other parts of Pennsylvania, we live in an area with near equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. Being someone both sides can tolerate can go a long way.

But it's also because moderates aren't the pushovers they're often depicted to be. Only steely-eyed politicians last long in the high-stakes world of Washington. And glimpses of that side of Dent were on full display during Tuesday's LehighValley+ Live event — the first in a series of member-exclusive conversations with newsmakers and experts.

Dent was charming throughout our hour-long conversation in front of about two dozen LehighValleyNews.com premium subscribers. It's not hard to see why he's become a staple on CNN or how he persuaded thousands of people to send him to Harrisburg and Washington over and over again.

'Let's throttle this ...'

But in one story, Dent recalled that then-Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., tried to force John Boehner out as House speaker in 2015. The only problem? Meadows, who would go on to serve as President Donald Trump's chief of staff, hadn't organized the support he needed from his fellow members of the Freedom Caucus, Dent said.

As Meadows and others began arguing on the House floor, Dent said he sidled up to Boehner and encouraged him to call the vote.

"Let's throttle this little baby of an insurrection while it's still in its bassinet," Dent said he told Boehner. When Boehner balked, Dent asked, "Why wouldn't you just crush your enemies right now? They're going to be destroyed."

And that right there is how Charlie Dent lasted 27 years in office. Those are the instincts of Conan the Barbarian, not some hand-wringing moralist wondering why we can't all get along. That attitude is a big reason why no one came within 10 points of defeating Dent in any of his seven congressional races.

The adults in the room

That was just one example Dent shared of times he urged mainstream Republicans to hit hard against the right flank of his own party. He presented the Freedom Caucus and the Tea Party as obstacles in Washington who cared less about results than making a point. In contrast, Dent painted moderates like himself as the adults in the room who keep the whole thing going.

According to Dent, he advised Boehner to keep the Freedom Caucus on the margins. During the regular fights over the debt ceiling, Dent said it would be better to cut deals with Democrats than give ground to Republicans with little interest in actually governing.

"Make them irrelevant. That's how I would deal with this," Dent said.

As proof of the model, he pointed to the downfall of former Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. King had a history of making racist and incendiary comments, and the party eventually revoked his committee assignments and bankrolled a primary opponent who ousted him.

"That's how you deal with people like this," Dent said, adding they should have used the tactic to defeat Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, too. Dent called the Republican from Georgia a problem for the party due to her bigoted comments and embrace of conspiracy theories.

Republican House leaders have thus far ignored Dent's advice. They've worked to sweeten deals with their right flank rather than work toward the center. During one debt ceiling crisis, Dent said he complained to Boehner that fringe players were being rewarded instead of the members who actually delivered him the needed votes.

"Those are the instincts of Conan the Barbarian, not some hand-wringing moralist wondering why we can't all get along. That attitude is a big reason why no one came within 10 points of defeating Dent in any of his seven congressional races."

"This is the problem around this place," Dent recalled telling Boehner. "You make it too easy for the guys who vote against the stuff that has to happen. Why don't you make it easy for those of us voting for the bill?"

The Trump factor

Trump's ascension in the Republican Party hasn't helped, according to Dent. His misdeeds have emboldened bad actors to cling to power, Dent said. Politicians have learned they can monetize notoriety, perhaps none more so than Trump, Dent said. Before Trump, politicians caught doing things like paying off porn stars resigned from office or saw their careers fall apart.

So perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that the right flank of the Republican Party has continued to obstruct Washington's normal order of business.

It all led up to this January, where the House failed to elect a speaker on its first ballot for the first time in 100 years. Dent watched from a CNN studio as it took Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., 15 ballots over four days to earn his gavel. Rather than negotiate with Democrats, McCarthy had to make concession after concession to appease his opponents in the Freedom Caucus.

"Is surrendering your way to winning really winning?" Dent asked.

Going forward

It's still too early to see how McCarthy will navigate the challenges of leading under the rules he's set. Another debt ceiling crisis is looming, and a default could badly damage the economy at a precarious moment. Many Republicans are demanding spending concessions from President Joe Biden in return for raising the ceiling. It's a move they didn't demand from Trump and a tactic a White House spokesman labeled "economic vandalism."

But the LehighValleyNews.com premium subscribers attended or watched the livestream of Tuesday's interview were introduced to an interesting "What If?"

After Boehner announced he would resign in 2015 — the fractures within the party had reached a breaking point — finding a successor proved difficult. Republicans held the majority, but McCarthy couldn't secure enough votes. Rep. Paul Ryan, the 2012 candidate for vice president, was the next choice, but he was reluctant to take the job.

Dent said that's when he was approached by three prominent House Democrats — "not Pelosi" he said — who floated a coalition. If he could muster support within the Republican Party, they would give him enough votes to put him over the top.

Dent was vague on what they were seeking — "nothing that dramatic as far as I was concerned" — but said he was intrigued by the offer. But before the conversation went too far, Ryan agreed to the job. Republicans, including Dent, rallied around him.

We'll never know if a Dent speakership would have set a different course in American politics. Centrists aren't as common in the Republican Party these days, but the GOP also found limited success since he left Congress.

But a few days ago, Dent made clear how he would have led and what he thinks is best in politics. To paraphrase Conan the Barbarian, "Crush your enemies, see them driven them before you and hear the lamentations of their donors."

Tom Shortell covers politics for LehighValleyNews.com.

LehighValley+ members get exclusive access to certain content and LehighValley+ Live events like the Charlie Dent interview hosted at Lehigh Valley Public Media on the SteelStacks campus in Bethlehem. You can find details here.