On Tuesday afternoon, Mitt Romney's foreign policy spokesman, Richard Grenell, resigned after only two weeks on the job. Grenell didn't step down because he'd been caught tweeting cruel things about Callista Gingrich, Hillary Clinton, and Rachel Maddow—though many people disliked him after he did that. Grenell resigned because he was tired of being hounded for being gay.
Grenell is an openly gay man, a fact to which his fellow Republicans did not take kindly when it was announced he'd be working on the Romney campaign. "Grenell has made a particular crusade of the marriage issue, with a kind of unhinged devotion that suggests a man with questionable judgment," wrote the National Review's Matthew Franck. Later, referencing an op-ed Grenell penned for a gay paper in Washington, D.C., Franck wrote, "[I]t’s a little disconcerting to see a man just hired by the Romney campaign write passionately about how 'gays are going to win support for their political issues.'"
It's depressing to find ourselves in yet another moment in which respected conservative pundits rend their seersucker suits when gay people have the gall to speak up for themselves. And more depressing is that these pundits can't even muster the tolerance necessary to support a gay man when he's working closely with their preferred presidential candidate. Which of course raises a question about how competent these pundits believe Romney to be. Because if you can't trust your guy to choose a good and effective spokesperson, how can you trust him in the Oval Office?
Logical questions and anti-gay pundits aside, there is a silver lining to this latest incident of homophobia in American politics. It presents a real opportunity for Romney—if he has the guts to take it.
If Romney wants to be President of the United States, he needs to grapple with the fact that people are questioning his leadership potential based on a history of backpedaling. While governor of Massachusetts, Romney signed into law universal health care for the state. Now he’s saying that Obama’s health care reform bill endangers free enterprise in the country. Where climate change is concerned, Romney wrote in his 2010 book No Apology, "I believe that climate change is occurring. ... I also believe that human activity is a contributing factor." But late last year, when asked on the campaign trail what he thought about climate change, Romney answered, "My view is that we don‘t know what’s causing climate change on this planet." Romney has also changed his mind on abortion, one time saying he was going to "protect and preserve a woman’s right to choose" before years later saying he wanted to see Roe v. Wade overturned.
Romney could use this Grenell situation as an opportunity to repair his reputation as a decisive leader. How?
Picture this: Romney calls a press conference at one of his campaign offices today. He’s flanked by Grenell and only Grenell, and he begins his speech by saying that he’s not accepting the gay man’s resignation. After that he says, "I hired Grenell because he was the best person for the job, which has nothing to do with him being gay, and I’m not going to let a bunch of bullies beat him into submission." Reporters, shocked, scream questions immediately, but Romney silences them. "I’d also like to let Grenell’s detractors know," he says, "that they are the ones giving fuel to people who mock the GOP as being stuck in the Middle Ages. They are the people pushing rational fiscal conservatives away from the party, and alienating talented, ambitious gay men and women who might otherwise consider voting Republican." Try and picture Romney then embracing Grenell and walking away.
That scene is difficult to envision because it will never happen. Asked for a statement on Grenell, the most Romney's camp could come up with was this: "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."
It was an anemic response. But to be fair, one would be hard pressed to find a politician who wouldn’t give the same kind of tepid statement. In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama hinted at the kind of fire one expects from a president with his now beatified "race speech," but lately it seems that he too has lost some of that fight. It’s an interesting political climate in which we supposedly elect great leaders who, when given a chance to manifest actual leadership in difficult times, shrink away behind two-sentence press releases. Romney could have been strong for Grenell, and in the process proved that he does have some backbone when it comes to his beliefs.
Of course, had Romney come out in support of his original decision to hire an openly gay man, he may very well have lost the backing of the increasingly powerful Tea Party swath of the GOP. And that would have affected his chances of winning the presidency in November. Still, I remain wary of someone who is willing to abandon their friends and colleagues in order to kowtow to bigots if it means winning. Sadly, that is to say that I remain wary of politics.