Mitt Romney’s foreign policy spokesman Richard Grenell resigned Tuesday afternoon, and the fact that he is openly gay appears to have been at least part of the reason.
Grenell, who was living in California with his longtime partner, served during the Bush administration as communications director for the US ambassador to the United Nations. In April the Romney campaign appointed him spokesman for foreign policy. He was the first openly gay spokesperson for a Republican presidential candidate. On Tuesday he sent a statement to Jennifer Rubin, a conservative blogger at the Washington Post:
I have decided to resign from the Romney campaign as the Foreign Policy and National Security Spokesman. While I welcomed the challenge to confront President Obama’s foreign policy failures and weak leadership on the world stage, my ability to speak clearly and forcefully on the issues has been greatly diminished by the hyper-partisan discussion of personal issues that sometimes comes from a presidential campaign. I want to thank Governor Romney for his belief in me and my abilities and his clear message to me that being openly gay was a non-issue for him and his team.
Rubin attributes his resignation to “a full-court press by anti-gay conservatives.”
Surely that didn’t help, although it may not be the entire story.
Grenell’s online persona—a curmudgeonly combativeness that some might find unpleasant—quickly became a minor campaign issue. His penchant for sexist attacks on women was noted by Think Progress, who reported, “[Grenell] has gone after Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Callista Gingrich, Sandra Fluke and others.” They posted screenshots of his unfunny jokes about the appearance of Rachel Maddow, Clinton, Albright, Callista Gingrich and others. He also tweeted heavy-handed jabs at Republicans such as “im rick santorum and gay people should be deported.” He also took an arguably racial shot at Michelle Obama, suggesting her saying at an event, “Because I got to get home after this” was “slang.” Mostly, though, he tweeted aggressive criticism of the Obama administration from a hawkish perspective, complaining repeatedly, for example, that Secretary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice were “ignoring” the government repression in Syria. Grenell sifted through his extensive twitter feed and deleted more than 800 potentially embarrassing tweets.
No sooner had that brouhaha died down, though, than conservatives began fretting that his sexual orientation would prevent him from serving conservative foreign policy interests. Grenell had written op-eds in favor of gay marriage. But he generally did so in a partisan Republican vein. He devoted a Washington Blade column for attacking gay writers for giving Obama too much credit, and Dick Cheney too little, on gay rights.
Nonetheless, Matthew J. Franck wrote in National Review:
Grenell has made a particular crusade of the marriage issue, with a kind of unhinged devotion that suggests a man with questionable judgment. And when the Obama State Department is already moving to elevate the gay-rights agenda to a higher plane than religious freedom in the foreign policy of the United States, it is reasonable to wonder whether Grenell, after taking such a prominent place in the Romney campaign’s foreign-policy shop, would be in line for an influential State posting where he could pursue his passion for that same agenda.
That question might have been reasonable, although describing someone who strongly supports his own civil rights as “unhinged” is unreasonable. It should also be noted that Grenell spent his entire career loyally serving anti-gay Republicans. On Twitter he snapped at people who criticized him for taking a job with Romney, who opposes marriage equality, by saying that not all gays share liberal politics on other issues.
Franck later added:
Whatever fine record he compiled in the Bush administration, Grenell is more passionate about same-sex marriage than anything else. So here’s a thought experiment. Suppose Barack Obama comes out—as Grenell wishes he would—in favor of same-sex marriage in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. How fast and how publicly will Richard Grenell decamp from Romney to Obama?
This was just a silly question. Clearly if Grenell spent years working in Republican politics he had long since reconciled himself to the fact that he was working for politicians who are less supportive of gay rights than their Democratic opponents. Just as Obama’s support for letting gays serve openly in the military, and Romney’s opposition to it, didn’t shape his partisan preference, there is no reason to think any future shift on gay marriage would.
But at least Franck’s complaints had a patina of policy concern. Bryan Fischer, spokesman for the American Family Association, attacked Grenell merely for being gay. Fischer tweeted, “Romney picks out & loud gay as a spokesman. If personnel is policy, his message to the pro-family community: drop dead.”
Fischer occupies an interesting place in conservative politics. He is fond of making controversial declarations such as, “President Obama wants to give the entire land mass of the United States of America back to the Indians.” Liberals excitedly repeat his statements as evidence of right-wing extremism and craziness. But he holds some real influence in grassroots conservative politics and is carefully kept inside the tent by the larger conservative movement. Prominent Republicans such as Jim DeMint, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum have appeared on his radio program. Buzzfeed describes Fischer as “probably the most straightforwardly anti-gay Republican to appear regularly in the party’s mainstream.”
Fischer later elaborated on his problem with Grenell. He explicitly called for discriminating against gays in hiring, writing:
Gov. Mitt Romney stepped on a landmine by appointing Richard Grenell, an out, loud and proud homosexual, to be his spokesman on national security and foreign policy issues. Grenell has for years been an outspoken advocate for homosexual marriage. In fact, word is that he left the Bush administration because President Bush would not formally acknowledge his homosexual partner.
Since, as the saying goes in D.C., personnel is policy, this means Gov. Romney has some ‘splaining to do. This clearly is a deliberate and intentional act on his part, since he was well aware of Mr. Grenell’s sexual proclivities and knew it would be problematic for social conservatives. It’s certainly not possible that there are no other potential spokesmen available, men who are experts in foreign policy and who at the same time honor the institution of natural marriage in their personal lives.
Romney has already calculated that he can afford not to cater to Fischer. At the Values Voter Summit last year, Fischer told me social conservatives would be very disappointed in Romney as a nominee, although they would support him over Obama. Expecting Fischer’s coming rebuke in his scheduled speech at the conference, Romney struck first in his speech there, saying that an unnamed speaker who would be following him descends into unpersuasive uncivil language.
Some conservative observers are speculating that therefore Grenell’s ouster has more to do with his past intemperate remarks than his sexuality. If it had only been Fischer criticizing Grenell, they would probably be right. But more mainstream social conservatives were also weighing in. The Family Research Council—the organization that sponsors the Values Voter Summit, where Romney speaks every year—expressed concerns about Grenell. In FRC Chairman Tony Perkins’s April 25 commentary, he wrote:
Grenell, who has been very open about his homosexual lifestyle, publicly condemned the Bush administration (shortly after leaving it) for opposing a U.N. resolution urging the full acceptance of homosexuality. While Bush (like nearly two thirds of the U.N. member states) refused to endorse the measure endorsing homosexuality, President Obama signed it shortly after taking office…. In a recent column for the Washington Blade, Grenell hinted at where he falls on the marriage issue when he criticized gay and lesbian Democrats for supporting President Obama despite the fact that he hasn’t done enough to redefine marriage. Still others point to Grenell’s long-time partner and his desire to tie the knot, “It’s not an option for us… but hopefully someday soon it will be.” While past performance is not a guarantee of future results, there is strong evidence that Grenell would lobby for foreign policy more in line with the current administration than the last Republican one.
Longtime Evangelical leader Gary Bauer also worried that Grenell’s hiring would alienate social conservatives:
I share their disappointment not because Grenell is gay. He is not weak on defense. In fact, former Ambassador John Bolton is defending Grenell today. Conservative pro-family leaders are disappointed because Grenell has been an outspoken advocate of redefining normal marriage. For the overwhelmingly majority of folks who support Governor Romney that issue is starkly clear — marriage is the union of one and one woman. But Grenell once caused a controversy by trying to have his partner listed as his spouse when he worked at the U.N. Thankfully, Grenell is not going to be making policy on domestic issues. But his appointment was disappointing because it comes at a time when the Romney campaign should be reaching out to the conservative base. Instead, this appointment seems like a slap at the base. Moreover, Grenell is known for having an acerbic personality, and critics have described his comments in social media as being “catty.” He may be competent, but he is creating controversies on multiple fronts where the Romney campaign can least afford them.
Notwithstanding Bauer’s protestations that Grenell’s sexuality isn’t the issue, he deploys a rather homophobic use of “catty” to describe Grenell’s personality, and uses quotes without saying whom he is quoting.
The conservative movement was hardly unified on this subject. At National Review, for example, Kevin Williamson disagreed with Franck that Grenell’s support for same-sex marriage should be a cause for concern among conservatives:
An all-consuming obsession with gay marriage does not seem to me the most likely explanation of a man’s service in the Bush administration…. The possibility of Speaker Boehner sending a national gay-marriage mandate to the desk of President Romney while Mr. Grenell plays the lavender Svengali behind the Oval Office drapery is not one over which I expect to lose much sleep.
Clearly, for one reason or another, the Romney campaign was nervous about deploying Grenell in the job they had hired him for. He never made any public statements on behalf of the Romney campaign during his two-week tenure.
Among people who closely follow politics this could hurt Romney’s efforts to pivot to the center. The Log Cabin Republicans, who had celebrated Grenell’s appointment, issued a statement attempting to blame “the far right and the far left” rather than Romney for the events. “It is unfortunate that while the Romney campaign made it clear that Grenell being an openly gay man was a non-issue for the governor and his team, the hyper-partisan discussion of issues unrelated to Ric’s national security qualifications threatened to compromise his effectiveness on the campaign trail,” said R. Clarke Cooper, Log Cabin Republicans executive director.
Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades issued a somewhat oblique statement: “We are disappointed that Ric decided to resign from the campaign for his own personal reasons. We wanted him to stay because he had superior qualifications for the position he was hired to fill.”
Grenell’s resignation is unlikely to resonate outside the Beltway. Certainly the proverbial suburban soccer mom voters are turned off by overt homophobia such as this. But staffer resignations in May are unlikely to be remembered by swing voters in November. “This is way too obscure [to matter],” says Republican strategist Soren Dayton.
But there’s at least one benefit for President Obama. In the Republican primary debates Romney attempted to take a dishonorable dodge on matters of actual policy regarding gay rights by saying his opposition to discrimination is shown by his record of hiring gays as Governor of Massachusetts. Of course, this is no substitute for supporting a law, such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, that would prevent others from discriminating as well. But now Romney won’t be able to use even this fig leaf.