In a transparent bid to pivot toward mainstream America now that he’s effectively wrapped up the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney’s campaign announced the hiring last month of Richard Grenell, former president George W. Bush’s top spokesman at the United Nations, as the candidate’s national security and foreign policy spokesperson.
Because Grenell is openly gay, the pushback from the religious right was swift. Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for the American Family Association — a Southern Poverty Law Center-certified anti-gay hate group — took to Twitter to deride Romney’s selection of an “out & proud gay” for his campaign team. According to Fischer, “If personnel is policy, [Romney’s] message to the pro-family community: drop dead.” In a column on the AFA’s website, Fischer went further, saying that the Grenell hire has all the appearances of a deliberate poke in the eye to the pro-family community, and a clumsy one at that, coming right on the heels of endorsements from Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas and the National Organization for Marriage, and right after the governor accepted an invitation to deliver the commencement address at Liberty University.
Fischer also issued a veiled threat to Romney, arguing that he has no chance of winning without generating significant enthusiasm from the socially conservative wing of the GOP, and asserting that in order to make up for hiring Grenell, “[Romney had] better start pandering in a big, fat hurry.” He included a helpful list of ways that the candidate could engage in said pandering, including publicly endorsing a marriage discrimination amendment on the ballot this month in North Carolina, committing himself to a “vigorous defense and implementation” of the unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act and the reinstatement of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and pledging to revoke federal benefits for same-sex spouses of government workers.
By contrast, mainstream LGBT organizations like the Human Rights Campaign welcomed Grenell’s hiring. HRC vice president Richard Sainz said, Ric’s been hired because he’s good at what he does and that’s what matters. At the end of the day, that’s what Americans care about. While I don’t agree with his politics, there’s absolutely no denying that Ric is incredibly smart and undeniably strategic.
Chuck Wolfe of the National Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund concurred in an interview with the Advocate:
We applaud the participation of out professionals in government and politics. Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, serving openly is important. It allows you to speak honestly about yourself and the LGBT community to colleagues inside campaigns and government offices.
The honeymoon wore off, though, when it was reported that Grenell had a nasty habit of making crass and derogatory remarks about liberals, women, and Democrats on Twitter. For example, he recently tweeted that MSNBC host Rachel Maddow needed to “take a breath and put on a necklace;” the day after his appointment was announced, he quipped that President Obama had committed treason by giving missile secrets to the Russians. Grenell quickly scrubbed the offensive messages — more than 800 of them — from his Twitter feed in response to the backlash.
Needless to say, the Romney campaign’s vetting and rollout of Richard Grenell had been rocky, earning them both flak from all across the political spectrum. But when Grenell resigned this week, just two weeks after he was hired, the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin revealed that it was behind-the-scenes pressure from social conservatives that led to his ouster. In a statement obtained by Rubin, Grenell said his decision to resign resulted from the “hyper-partisan discussion of personal issues that sometimes comes from a presidential campaign.” Rubin’s sources also told her that Grenell felt he was being sidelined by the Romney campaign, which declined to put him out as a spokesperson while the hate-fueled controversy surrounding his appointment was swirling.
The entire episode is troubling because it shows just how thoroughly the Republican Party has abandoned its former “big tent” philosophy in favor of hard-right orthodoxy. While Grenell assured Rubin that his “being openly gay was a non-issue” for the Romney campaign, their failure to forcefully defend him against the bullying of anti-gay hate groups is another example of the calculated tepidity that has come to define the former Massachusetts governor on so many issues, including LGBT rights. By keeping Grenell under wraps and staying silent in the face of the malicious attacks of religious extremists, Romney squandered his opportunity to appear more moderate and mainstream. Would a President Romney display a similar degree of deference to the anti-gay religious right?
I hope we don’t ever have to find out.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”