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Trump has made political gridlock ‘more challenging,’ says retiring Rep. Charlie Dent

Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent announced Tuesday he will leave Congress a few months earlier than expected; last fall he announced he would not seek re-election. Why leave now? Dent says he plans to bring a voice to the “sensible center” from outside of Congress. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss his exit, President Trump and the political headwinds for Republicans going into the midterm election.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Seven-term U.S. Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania announced today that he will resign, leaving office next month.

    Last fall, Dent said that he would not seek reelection in November of 2018.

    This evening, I asked Dent, why leave right now?

  • Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Penn.:

    Well, I had conversations with my family for some time, and we decided now was the right time.

    I should tell you that I really want to get out there and bring a voice to the sensible center for this country. I also — I have no final plans about my own professional opportunities, but I have been planning, and I would just as soon try to deal with those issues when I'm out of Congress, rather than when I'm in.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you mean be a voice for the sensible center? What does that mean?

  • Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Penn.:

    We have a primary process here that rewards those who tend to want to tack to the bases, some would say to the extremes.

    And so those folks I think are much more represented in the U.S. Congress than I would say people who are more pragmatic, more solutions-oriented. It's a very big problem. The center is a large swathe of the country, but not a large swathe of the Congress right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But if the moderates, whether it's center-right, as I think you describe yourself, or center-left, are all leaving, who is going to do that job in Congress?

  • Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Penn.:

    Well, we are going to work on it from the outside, too.

    I was encouraged to see groups like the Problem Solvers, No Labels. They stepped in and helped Dan Lipinski in his race in the Democratic primary out in Illinois, where he was being attacked from the far left. And he prevailed.

    And so I think there needs to be a political infrastructure much further developed out across the country to help candidates like that who can speak to a broader audience and who have the capacity actually to get to yes, because many of these people who are tacking to the bases and some to the extremes just find their political safety at the base, and they are just not in a position where they can seek consensus and ultimately support a compromise.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have told reporters in the last year or so, Congressman Dent, that you have grown tired of trying to explain to people what's happening in Washington, including under the leadership of President Trump. Is that a part of your decision?

  • Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Penn.:

    Well, I have noticed too that the polarization and paralysis in this Congress has been going on for some time.

    It predated Donald Trump. Certainly, with Donald Trump, he has made this even more challenging. I would say the president was a factor in my decision to not seek reelection, but not the factor. I have been thinking about this for a few years.

    But the paralysis is — it is what it is. We saw government shutdown in 2013, an absolutely futile, stupid gesture, all to advance the interests of one U.S. senator, political interests. It made absolutely no sense. And people went along for — on this suicide mission for no reason.

    That's where I really started to see things break down. That was the beginning of it. But, again, that predated Donald Trump. And now that we have President Trump, he brings his own set of issues in terms of the chaos and dysfunction now at the White House that makes governing very difficult.

    And I vote against the health care bill, for example. And, you know, I'm glad I did for a lot of reasons, but after the bill passed the House, the president said it was mean, the bill was mean. Or just watching the other day with Nikki Haley taking a position on Russian sanctions, only then to have the president say, well, no, that's not where we are.

    He seems to contradict or undermine some of his own staff from time to time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm sure you know a lot of people believe Republicans face an uphill fight this fall. They may lose majority control of the House.

    How strong is the Republican Party right now going into these elections?

  • Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Penn.:

    Well, the Republican Party is certainly in a very defensive position.

    During a midterm, the first midterm of a president, the party in power usually loses 32 seats in the House. We're running into a very strong headwind. This midterm election will likely be a referendum on the president of the United States and his conduct in office, and that will drive this election probably more than anything else.

    So I tell my colleagues, particularly those in swing and marginal districts, that they need to put some distance between themselves and the president, just as Conor Lamb did in Southwestern Pennsylvania. He put some distance between himself and his own party's leadership, which I thought was actually a smart thing to do.

    Republicans will probably have to do the same thing in the swing and marginal districts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think Republicans can win a majority?

  • Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Penn.:

    Well, I would say it's tough. It will be an uphill climb. It's probably 50/50 at best. And the odds can change. Certainly, the energy, the enthusiasm and the anger is on the Democratic side in this election. There's no sugarcoating that.

    So, you know, there's a big wave coming. And some members will have to get off the beach. You just got to watch this real carefully. And so I don't know what — members are going to — Republican members will likely try to localize these races to the best that they can.

    These races now are much more nationalized than they used to be. So, they will localize this. I suspect Republican candidates will have to go out and try to discredit their opponents early. That might be the best way to proceed in this type of cycle, when everything is kind of stacked against you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Congressman Charlie Dent stepping down in coming weeks after serving 14 years in Congress, thank you very much.

  • Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Penn.:

    OK. Thank you, Judy. Great to be with you.

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