On his final weekday as a Republican member of Congress, Charlie Dent was in Philadelphia, picking at a breakfast buffet and joking in all seriousness about the city he’s leaving behind. “In Washington,” he said, “stating the obvious is considered a revelation.”
Dent is quitting his Pennsylvania seat — joining a House GOP exodus that’s actually bigger than in the Watergate year of 1974 — and his decision has liberated him to talk candidly about the partisan tribalism and the Trump toxicity that threatens to destroy our democratic values. And rest assured, he said this morning, “those values — an independent judiciary, a free press, the rule of law — are under assault” from “autocratic capitalistic” Russia and China.
At a breakfast sponsored by the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, Dent was indeed “stating the obvious” — nothing he said was particularly new — but he helped to explain why Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Dave Reichert, Dave Trott, Frank LoBiondo, Ted Poe, Lamar Smith, Sam Johnson, Lynn Jenkins, Bob Goodlatte, Jeb Hensarling, Jimmy Duncan, Bill Shuster, Joe Barton, Gregg Harper, Ed Royce, Darrell Issa, Pat Meehan, Rodney Frelinghuysen, Trey Gowdy, Ryan Costello, Dennis Ross, and House Speaker Paul Ryan have either quit already or scoped the exit door.
The sheer dysfunction, the “excruciatingly ideological” divide among lawmakers, has gotten incrementally worse during Dent’s seven terms, but Trump (who, in many ways, is the mutant strain of our ills) has come to symbolize the worst of us. Dent didn’t exactly say that, but he’s candidly frustrated with Trunp’s tweets and tantrums. He shared a long anecdote about being in a congressional meeting with Trump last year, during the GOP’s quest to kill Obamacare, and when it became clear that Dent (as a longstanding moderate) intended to vote No on killing Obamacare, Trump harangued him at great length, and after he finished addressing others in the room, he glared at Dent and proceeded to harangue him again.
“That’s kind of typical,” said Dent, who referenced a news story about how the director of Homeland Security nearly quit her job on Wednesday after weathering a standard Trump diatribe. But Kirstjen Nielsen is apparently staying. And for every House Republican who’s bailing on a re-election race, roughly 10 others are staying. And, as Dent pointed out, they’re staying because either they’re diehard Trumpists (“blindly loyal, to the point of sycophancy”) who equate dissent with “treason”; or they’re simply “scared” of the voting Trumpists in their districts.
This helps to explain (but not excuse) Paul Ryan’s spinelessness. Dent said the lame-duck Speaker is “relieved” to be leaving, because he has long been “a bit tortured … He’s not comfortable dealing with the president, he just isn’t. It’s hard for him … But he has had to make accommodations. He has a lot of members who think (favorably) about the president,” and those members are under relentless pressure from their Trump-loving constituents — “the hard base, the fringe, who have an outsized voice. They scare a lot of members. And our legislative leaders are scared of the members.”
The whole situation is “a little scary,” he said, particularly since we have a president whose instinct is to flatter dictators, not to defend our democratic values. “That’s one of the issues I have with him. We’ve taken our values for granted for so long, because presidents in both parties have talked about them,” about the web of military and economic alliances that have underpinned our security since the end of World War II. NATO is a good thing, he said. The European Union is a good thing, he said: “It’s nice to see a German chancellor saying ‘We’re gonna sit down and talk,’ which is better than what Hitler did … I think we need to double down on this (world) order,” not tear it down to Russia’s delight.
This is why the 2018 congressional midterm elections are arguably the most important in American history. Dent didn’t say that. I’m saying that.
If “autocratic capitalism” is going to be stopped, if traditional democratic values are going to be saved, it has to happen at the ballot box in November. Dent didn’t say he was rooting for the Democrats to take the House and bring a semblance of checks and balances. Nor should we expect a veteran Republican congressman to do that. But he sure didn’t seem upset by his own prediction:
“The issue for Republicans this year is the (threat) that’s gonna be in front of them — the Democratic wave that’s brewing here. Anybody can see this. This election is about the president of the United States and his conduct in office. That will be the prime narrative. It always is, in a midterm election. The party in power is always going to be judged – particularly now … The best case scenario for House Republicans is, they hang onto the House by their fingernails. The worst case is, they lose more than 35 seats … Democrats need only 23. I can get you another 12 in about a minute.”
For the nation’s sake, let’s hope he’s right.