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Let the Republican Blame Game Begin

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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It’s the kind of question politicians usually ask when a disastrous election is over: Who’s to blame? In Donald Trump’s case, the time to start answering is now.

Trump’s graphic boasts about groping women, caught on a 2005 videotape that surfaced Friday, set off Republican desertions in bulk. A debate performance Sunday night featuring a threat to prosecute Hillary Clinton and a scornful repudiation of his own running mate can’t have given party leaders much comfort.

Trump’s nomination amounted to a repudiation of those leaders by angry Republican primary voters. But there were enablers who made his nomination more certain and lent credibility to a candidate with few qualifications, principles or commitment to the party.

Based on conversations with a half-dozen important Republican figures who think Trump will drag down their party in November, these are some prime culprits:

Reince Priebus: The Republican Party chairman, who for five years successfully led fundraising and organizational efforts, calculated last spring that his legacy depended on joining the Trump team and helping shape his candidacy.

He thwarted attempts to open the Cleveland convention in July to anti-Trump forces and warned holdouts like Ohio Governor John Kasich that he was endangering any future in the party. There's no evidence that he had much influence on the candidate, and his legacy is now Trump.

Freedom Caucus: This is the group of radically conservative members of the House of Representatives who shun compromise and brought down Speaker John Boehner. Its mission statement declares support for "open, accountable and limited government,” but its members have embraced Trump despite his stated opposition to reining in entitlement programs and his support for a massive deportation force.

The caucus chairman, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, says he's an "enthusiastic" Trump supporter and Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina is trying to rally people around Trump and "a set of ideas." It's not clear which ones.

Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz, not a caucus member but a soul mate, drew praise over the weekend for withdrawing his Trump endorsement after the lewd video surfaced, saying he wouldn’t be able to justify supporting the candidate to his 15-month-old daughter when she grows up. Apparently he did not foresee problems explaining to her why the nominee denounced the mother of a Muslim U.S. soldier killed in combat in Iraq, or mocked a reporter with physical disabilities, or questioned the integrity an Indiana-born judge because his parents were from Mexico, or, as the Washington Post reported months ago, the way he replied to the radio shock-jock Howard Stern when asked if he could have sexually "nailed" Princess Diana. "I think I could have," Trump said.

The religious right: For 40 years, this political movement has stressed the centrality of morality and character in public life. Now Ralph Reed, the movement’s longtime political strategist, goes through contortions to defend his support of Trump. Richard Land, once considered the intellectual leader of the religious right, explains his loyalty to the candidate by calling Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, "morally and financially corrupt" even by comparison to the thrice married, sexually boastful Trump. Some prominent Christian evangelicals, notably Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, have said absolutely no to Trump, but they often seem drowned out by the others.

Chris Christie: It's never a surprise when an ex-politician, out of office for many years, is dying to regain influence; think of former Speaker Newt Gingrich and ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. But Christie is the current governor of New Jersey and was just a few months ago a respected figure in the Republican Party.

Then, after dropping out of the presidential nomination race in February following a sixth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary, Christie jumped on the Trump bandwagon. His subsequent cheerleading was deftly mocked last week by a cartoon in the Star-Ledger of Newark, NJ depicting him as a parrot on Trump's shoulder saying: "Squawk. Mr. Trump is Generous. Squawk. Mr. Trump is smart and handsome. Squawk. I can't believe this is my life now."

Supply-siders: The economists Arthur Laffer, Steve Moore and Larry Kudlow ignored everything except the candidate's pledge to slash taxes, mainly for the well-off, sacrificing their longstanding support for free trade and immigration.

The party’s top leaders in Washington, Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, often criticized Trump while supporting him. That doesn’t make them stand-up guys, but their positions make their slipperiness understandable, if not admirable.

Without the Trump enablers, the result may have been the same. But battle lines would have been drawn, earlier and more sharply.

And there were stand-up Republicans, notably most of the Bush family, Mitt Romney, and especially elected officials who chose dignity over careerism like Senators Jeff Flake, Ben Sasse and Lindsey Graham and Governor Kasich. They won’t have to wonder what to tell their descendants where they stood in 2016.

(Corrects spelling of party chairman's name in fifth paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net