After Mitt Romney’s foreign policy spokesman Richard Grenell resigned on Tuesday in response to social conservative complaints about his sexual orientation and his support for same-sex marriage, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association is claiming credit. On his radio program Tuesday afternoon, Fischer—who was the first to criticize Grenell for being “an out, loud and proud homosexual”—boasted, “This is a huge win…. I will flat-out guarantee you [Romney] is not going to make this mistake again. There is no way in the world that Mitt Romney is going to put a homosexual activist in any position of importance in his campaign.” (Fischer is a former evangelical pastor who is prone to making controversial remarks such as, “We should screen out homosexuals who want to immigrate to the United States.”)
That, of course, raises an important question: if staunch religious conservatives such as Fischer can dictate Romney’s policy and personnel decisions, what other demands will they make?
I called Fischer to find out. He says there are a number of stances on issues Romney has thus far avoided that would reassure the “pro-family” community. The most significant includes a pledge to veto the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would protect gays and lesbians from workplace discrimination, reinstating “don’t ask, don’t tell” and removing spousal benefits for the domestic partners of federal employees. Fischer laid out these same ideas in his initial attack on Grenell. “Romney needs to make the following public commitments…if he is to have any hope of generating even modest enthusiasm in the base.… If he’s going to pander, he’d better start pandering in a big, fat hurry.”
Here’s what Fischer told me on Wednesday:
One thing [Romney] can do is come out and endorse North Carolina’s marriage amendment. Sanctity of marriage is a very important issue for the pro-family community. I would urge him to restate his commitment to rigorously defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). I would urge him to commit to revoking spousal benefits for unmarried domestic partners. President Obama has extended spousal benefits to partners of federal employees in violation of DOMA. We need to hear Romney take a position on reversing that. He needs to publicly commit to vetoing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) if it reaches his desk. I think he should reinstate the ban on homosexuality in the military. He said he won’t do that, but he should make it clear that military chaplains on his watch will have freedom to teach biblical view of sexuality without any fear of repercussions.
Romney has a nuanced—some might say slippery—relationship with a few of these issues. On DADT Romney criticizes President Obama for signing the law repealing it and allowing gays to serve openly in the military. But his rationale is not exactly that it was the wrong policy in the abstract, only that it was too stressful for the military. Therefore he says it would be even more disruptive to reverse the repeal now. This complicated position has the virtue of being partially acceptable to people on both sides of the issue. He must attempt to keep the anti-gay conservative base mollified while not alienating the large majority of the public that supported letting gays serve. His position allows him to sidestep taking any stance of accepting or rejecting homosexuality, while nominally caring only about what is best for the military as a whole. Of course, what was best for the brave men and women already serving in the military who happened to be gay doesn’t enter into this calculation. It is politically shrewd, albeit nakedly calculating and cowardly.
On some of these other hot-button issues, such as benefits for the domestic partners of federal employees and ENDA, Romney hasn’t taken a stance in this campaign. His campaign declined to comment on these issues. But Romney has spoken about ENDA in the past. Back in 1994 when he ran for US Senate, he pledged to co-sponsor ENDA if he was elected. Then, in 2007, he said he would not support ENDA as president. So Fischer should rest assured that, as of Romney’s most recent flip-flop, he opposes protecting gays from discrimination in the workplace.
The other issues are essentially symbolic. The president has no say over state ballot initiatives regarding marriage. The supposed oppression of anti-gay military chaplains is an obscure myth that no one outside the religious right even knows about. It is mostly idle conjecture that chaplains will not be allowed to insult homosexuality now that gays can serve openly in the military, not actual evidence of any chaplains being punished.
Symbolism, though, is important to Fischer, as it is to many social conservatives. Unlike other evangelical leaders, who pretended that their only objection to Grenell was his advocacy for marriage equality, Fischer readily admits that he doesn’t think Romney should have openly gay staffers. “If Richard Grenell had kept his sexual preferences to himself, none of this would have happened,” says Fischer. “Nobody would know, nobody would care.” I asked if that meant he thinks gays can work on the Romney campaign only if they remain in the closet, but not if they are open about their sexual orientation. Fischer didn’t dispute that characterization of his views, saying, “In [Washington,] DC, personnel is policy. If [Romney] wants to reassure the evangelical community that he’s with us on the sanctity of marriage then he should not make hiring decisions that confuse us about where he stands.”
The Romney campaign declined to respond to Fischer’s comments. Romney has butted heads with Fischer in the past, most notably when he criticized Fischer’s lack of “civility” at the Conservative Political Action Conference last year.
Given that Fischer has expressed misgivings about Romney in the past, especially about whether he is truly committed to the social conservative cause, I wondered why Fischer was so happy that Romney dumped Grenell. Isn’t this just more evidence that Romney doesn’t, in his heart, oppose homosexuality? That he just will bend to the conservative base as much as he has to? Then again, does it matter? Or is the proof that you can control a candidate as valuable as the proof that he personally agrees with you? “You would prefer to have a candidate that you know is with you in his heart on these issues,” says Fischer. “But ten years from now all that’s going to matter is the policies he pursued, it’s not going to matter why he pursued them. If he will do the right thing because it is politically expedient, then he will have done the right thing. At the end of the day that’s what’s going to count.”