If you had any doubts about what kind of president Mitt Romney would be, the Ric Grenell matter will have ended them. Grenell resigned from the Romney campaign as spokesman on national security issues when campaign aides thought the way to respond to homophobic attacks was essentially to try to push Grenell back in the closet–and out of the campaign door.
The upshot? The Romney campaign’s instinct is that being gay is a problem to handle and that placating the worst homophobes in the Republican base is more important than sticking up for its own officials.
There’s no doubt that Grenell was eminently qualified for the job. He served as spokesman for four U.N. ambassadors under the George W. Bush administration and was recommended to the campaign by former ambassador John Bolton, for whom the word “warmonger” may well have been coined.
The New York Times described Grenell as having “pristine Republican credentials.” And indeed Grenell was good at the type of back-alley knife-fighting that characterizes GOP politics. In his Twitter feed, he wondered if Newt Gingrich’s wife Callista can “snap on” her hair, suggested Hillary Clinton was begin to look like the decidedly unglamorous former secretary of state Madeline Albright, and said MSNBC host and out lesbian Rachel Maddow “should take a breath and put on a necklace.” (He didn’t offer to lend her one.) In short, Grenell is an asshole, so the irony is that, other than being gay, he’s the perfect Republican.
Formerly, Republicans didn’t believe in “special rights” to protect gay people from being fired. But the right wing of the party now believes that the Romney campaign should actively prevent gay people from being hired, a step backward even from the conservative George W. Bush administration, which appointed severa gay men to prominent posts. Bryan Fischer, the director of issues analysis for the American Family Association who earns his living making bat-shit crazy homophobic remarks, saw in Grenell’s hiring apostasy. Fischer tweeted: “If personnel is policy, his message to the pro-family community: drop dead.” (Some of you might think, from his lips to God’s ears.)
Of course, if personnel is policy, then hiring highly qualified people, gay and not-gay, might be a good thing.
Soon others started piling on. In a column in the National Review Online, Matthew Franck suggested that Grenell cared more about marriage equality than anything else (which begs the question of why Grenell didn’t chuck foreign policy to work on marriage) and that he would quickly “decamp from Romney to Obama” if Obama comes out for marriage equality. Because you know that we’re all single-issue voters.
So, now at least it’s more clear than ever: there is a heterosexuality litmus test within the Republican party, which has given up big-tent politics for revival-tent politics. There is no room for debate on gay issues, even if you’ve been a party loyalist with years of service.
That’s bad enough. What’s worse is how Romney’s campaign handled the whole episode. According to The Times, minutes before the Romney’s campaign first big foreign policy conference call with reporters, another Romney aide told Grenell he wasn’t to speak on the call but instead “lay low for now.” (The aide didn’t add, but perhaps should have, “in the closet.”) Grenell organized the call and indeed was hired for just this sort of press outreach. You can’t blame him for concluding that the Romney campaign was hanging him out to dry.
For Romney, this could have been the big moment when he would have shaken loose from all the nutburgers that have attached themselves to the party and that are draining its chances of success. Bill Clinton faced a similar choice in 1992, when hip-hop MC Sister Souljah was quoted as saying, “If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Clinton criticized her, thereby signalling to moderate voters that he didn’t hold with more extreme elements in the Democratic party. This is still known among political junkies as the Sister Souljah moment.
But instead the Romney campaign chose to treat Grenell’s sexuality as the problem. In doing so, it showed that it will kowtow to the most extreme elements of the party base. It also handed those same elements a very clear victory. They know that Romney will do what they want him to do out of cowardice.
And that’s what a Romney White House might well look like. Well qualified people exiled solely because they are gay. The closet would regain its power.
To her credit, Jennifer Rubin, a blogger at the Washington Post and an unabashed conservative, staunchly defended Grenell. Rubin called the whole episode for what it was: “whether the mere presence of a gay person in a Republican campaign is a bridge too far.” Of course, Rubin immediately went for false equivalence, saying that “the left” was as bad as the right’s homophobes, by wondering how a gay man could work for Republicans.
Of course, after the Grenell affair, the only thing to wonder about is how anyone would think that’s an unfair question.
Photo by Gage Skidmore