Any discussion of “moderates” among congressional Republicans is inherently difficult because of the ways in which the GOP”s ideological pillars have shifted in recent years. Republican politics has become radicalized, quantitatively, to such a degree that a relative GOP centrist by 2015 standards would have been considered a conservative, say, 25 years ago.
It’s the byproduct of a Republican conference that’s the most ideologically extreme – at least by American standards – since the post-Civil War reconstruction era.
That said, if we were to draw up a list of mainstream House GOP lawmakers who seemed genuinely interested in governing and working constructively, Rep. Charlie Dent (R) would probably be at the top of the list. This isn’t to say he’s a centrist Republican along the lines of the “Rockefeller Republicans” from years past – there just aren’t many similarities – but as many GOP lawmakers head off the far-right cliff, Dent just doesn’t seem eager to follow them.
And as the 114th Congress gets off to a right-wing start, Dent is one of the only Republicans on the Hill who’s willing to say, out loud, that his majority party may not be on the right track.
“I prefer that we avoid these very contentious social issues [such as abortion],” said moderate Rep. Charlie Dent, reprising comments he gave in the closed-door conference meeting. “Week one, we had a speaker election that did not go as well as a lot of us would have liked. Week two, we got into a big fight over deporting children, something that a lot of us didn’t want to have a discussion about. Week three, we are now talking about rape and incest and reportable rapes and incest for minors…. I just can’t wait for week four.”
He made very similar comments to Sahil Kapur today, suggesting this is a concern he’s thought about quite a bit.
“Week one, we had a Speaker election that didn’t go as well as a lot of us would have liked. Week two, we spent a lot of time talking about deporting children, a conversation a lot of us didn’t want to have. Week three, we’re debating reportable rape and incest – again, not an issue a lot of us wanted to have a conversation about,” the Republican congressman said. “I just can’t wait for week four.”
His discontent is easy to understand.
Again, the point isn’t that Dent is some kind of Democrat in Republicans’ clothing. I’d actually characterize him as a center-right Republican – the American Conservative Union gives him a lifetime rating of 64 out of 100, with 0 being the most liberal and 100 being the most conservative. Former Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.) was arguably the last great, genuine Republican centrist, and the Pennsylvania congressman is easily to her right.
But Dent also doesn’t seem to have much use for the way his House brethren shape their priorities. Note that in November, for example, after President Obama unveiled his immigration policy, it was Dent who told his fellow Republicans the party could be “strong, rational and measured,” without “a hysterical reaction.” (They ignored him.)
When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) accepted an invitation to deliver the keynote address to a group called In Defense of Christians, and the right-wing senator baited the crowd into booing him, it was Dent who was willing to say Cruz’s antics were “outrageous and incendiary.”
When his party prioritized the culture war over the economy, Dent said, “The stupidity is simply staggering.” Dent also supports marriage equality and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
If the Republican Party is ever going to get dragged closer to the American mainstream again – a big “if” – one imagines it would be a guy like Charlie Dent doing the pulling.
But his quotes to National Journal and TPM actually help underscore the source of his exasperation – Dent isn’t pleased and House Republicans obviously don’t care. There’s a group of GOP moderates called the Tuesday Group that hopes to have some influence over the party’s direction, guiding Republicans away from knee-jerk extremism, but as his own quotes help demonstrate, Dent’s influence is severely limited.
Looking ahead, it’s easy to imagine the GOP continuing to resist any kind of ideological move towards the mainstream unless (a) Republicans start losing a whole lot of elections, several cycles in a row; or (b) folks like Dent start giving up on the party en masse, shrinking the GOP’s numbers to a level that would get party leaders’ attention.