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Mitt Romney and the club of GOP political heirs pushing back on Trump

(Erin Schaff | The New York Times) Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks to reporters in Washington on Thursday, June 9, 2020. A high-profile club of elected Republicans — all descendants of the Republican establishment of the past, whether rebellious or resolute — has emerged as a kind of shadow conscience of the party during these days of turmoil.

Washington • One of the presumed take-aways of President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 was that he had struck a blow against political dynasties in America.

He demolished the early Republican favorite, Jeb Bush, the son of the 41st president and brother of the 43rd, and then vanquished the wife of the two-term 42nd president.

But even as Trump’s takeover of his party is largely complete, a trio of heirs to the old guard have been among the most prominent dissenting voices.

A high-profile club of elected Republicans — all descendants of the Republican establishment of the past, whether rebellious or resolute — has emerged as a kind of shadow conscience of the party during these days of turmoil.

Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland has been a leading voice of frustration over Trump’s management of the COVID-19 outbreak. He was also one of the few Republican governors to say, in 2016, that he would not support his party’s nominee. Instead, he wrote in the name of his late father, Rep. Lawrence J. Hogan, the only Watergate-era Republican in the House who voted to recommend all three articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., a daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, has been perhaps her party’s most persistent critic of Trump’s national security program.

She has bristled at a number of his administration’s positions — including on the Middle East, Russia and the president’s engagement with autocrats — and has generally promoted a hawkish strain of Republican foreign policy that was associated with her father during his vice presidency. She also spoke out in support of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a witness who testified in impeachment inquiry against Trump, as well as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert; both endured sustained attacks from the White House and several elected Republicans.

[Read more: No, Mitt Romney is not leading the resistance]

Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, has made plain his disgust for Trump on a variety of occasions. (The feeling is mutual.) His father, George Romney, was a three-term governor of Michigan and a Republican presidential candidate who repeatedly ran afoul of the party’s orthodoxy on civil rights and Vietnam.

In recent months, Mitt Romney said, he has received several “Dad would be proud” messages from members of his extended family.

They came during Trump’s impeachment trial this year after Romney cast the lone Republican vote to convict the president and remove him from office.

Other missives arrived last month after Romney attended a racial equality protest near the White House and chanted “Black Lives Matter” — a phrase that few elected Republicans have uttered in public.

“I heard from my brother and sister, and my nieces and nephews, saying, ‘That’s what Dad would have done,’” Romney said in an interview.

The legacy club includes two emeritus brothers, former President George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, neither of whom have much use for Trump. The former president released a video in May that saluted health care workers and urged national unity in the fight against the coronavirus. But Bush’s video, which received bipartisan praise, made for a stark contrast with Trump’s more combative approach — a slight that apparently upset the president, who then complained in a tweet that Bush had not properly defended him during his impeachment.

One of the hallmarks of recent history has been the accelerated time frames in which political identities can shift.

“George W. Bush’s acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican convention reads like a document from a lost civilization,” said Stuart Stevens, a former adviser to Bush, Romney and a host of other Republican presidential candidates. “It’s like something from the Mayans. The speech was all about humility and compassion.”

A fervent critic of Trump, Stevens has a book out this month, “It Was All a Lie,” which charts what he describes as the Republican Party’s decadeslong spiral into racism, nativism and ultimately Trumpism. He said descendants of political families might feel burdens of virtue more acutely than others do. He mentioned George Romney’s protest against what he considered the party’s lack of commitment to civil rights at the Republican National Convention in 1964.

“To me, you can take a direct line from there to Mitt saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ in 2020,” he said.

Until recently, no one would have ever described Mitt Romney as a leading dissident within his party. But the Trump years have imposed a distinct set of character tests upon elected Republicans at every level.

Romney idolized his father, to a point where he would write “Dad” on a sheet of paper at his lectern before big political speeches and debates. As he has navigated the lonely terrain of a defiant Republican in the Trump era, Romney said his father had loomed as a powerful example.

“It’s not as if I stop to consider ‘What would Dad want me to do?’” Romney said.

As he has gotten older and embarked on what will most likely be the last chapter of his career, in the Senate, Romney said, it has become easier to heed the lessons of his forebears rather than the demands of political expediency.

“I’ve learned that if you don’t follow your conscience, it haunts you for a long, long time,” Romney said. “At this stage in life, I’m not going to do that anymore.”

He predicted, correctly, a follow-up question about what actions he was talking about.

“I’m not going to tell you,” Romney said, chuckling.

Notions of history and reputation tend to resonate stronger among political heirs.

“‘What will be said of me?' ‘What will my character be in history?’” asked journalist and historian Jon Meacham, a biographer of President George Bush and close friend of the Bush family. “Interestingly, the people with familial antecedents in the business have tended to understand that a good character in history — a good story — requires standing up to the prevailing sentiments of the hour.”

At the very least, one of the advantages of having political elders who took difficult positions is the example of their own survival. They have “been through the wars,” Meacham said, and lived to tell about it.

“He paid a big price,” Hogan said in an interview, speaking about the recriminations his father faced after voting for the articles of impeachment against Nixon.

“He lost friends in Congress, he lost the support of his constituents, and he angered the White House,” Hogan said.

Nixon himself cited Lawrence Hogan’s repudiation as a decisive signal that his support among Republicans in Congress would not hold.

History was kind to his father, Hogan said: “He voted his conscience and was known as a courageous guy.”

Unlike Romney, Hogan, who is 64, still has possible designs on higher office. He has said he is exploring a run for the 2024 presidential nomination of a party in which Trump will likely retain significant affection from the rank and file, whether or not he is reelected. For that reason, it makes little sense for Hogan to unload upon the president as freely as Romney has.

Likewise, Cheney — who occupies the sole congressional seat from solidly Republican Wyoming — has been mentioned for a variety of future roles, including that of House Republican leader or even a run for president herself.

She has been especially deft in criticizing Trump while managing not to alienate him. While Trump has voiced repeated scorn for the presidency of George W. Bush, he has mostly spared her father.

Now 79, the former vice president remains a close adviser to his daughter, who is the third-ranking Republican in the House, a role that Cheney himself held. Liz Cheney recently tweeted a photo of her cowboy-hatted father wearing a blue surgical mask, which she captioned “Dick Cheney says WEAR A MASK. #realmenwearmasks.” The message was taken as quasi-subtle defiance at Trump’s stubborn refusal at the time to do the same.

Both Cheneys appear steadfast and aligned as ever in their hawkish foreign policy positions. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said Cheney, like her father, adhered to an “internationalist view” more in line with the traditional Republican perspective than Trump tended to be.

“The Cheneys are big believers in allies, whereas the president is much more America First, or America alone,” Cole said.

While he has said little publicly, Dick Cheney seems to share his daughter’s impatience with many elements of Trump’s approach. He barely hid his dubious view of the administration’s foreign policy during a tense public forum with Vice President Mike Pence at a conservative donor retreat in Georgia last year.

“We’re getting into a situation when our friends and allies around the world that we depend upon are going to lack confidence in us,” Dick Cheney reportedly told Pence, according to a transcript of the off-the-record discussion obtained by The Washington Post. “I worry that the bottom line of that kind of an approach is we have an administration that looks a lot more like Barack Obama than Ronald Reagan.”

But none of the attacks from the Cheneys have provoked any response from the White House. Liz Cheney has leavened her critiques with pointed ridicule of some of Trump’s favorite targets, including the so-called Squad of four progressive House freshmen, all women of color. She was critical of efforts to impeach the president and voted against the articles. Liz and Dick Cheney hosted a fundraiser last year for the Republican National Committee and the president’s reelection campaign. Both declined to be interviewed.

For his part, Romney said he was less concerned with how he would be remembered in history than by his own family. He cautioned, however, that his current age — 73 — was too young to dwell on the past.

“I’m just getting started with this Senate thing,” Romney said.

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