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.” But this Friday, Dent was vindicated, when Republican Senators John McCain, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins dealt fatal blow to Obamacare repeal in Congress.
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.
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