The political world is buzzing over the sudden resignation of Richard Grenell, the former spokesman for John Bolton at the UN who had signed on to serve as foreign policy spokesman for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. Grenell was scheduled to begin work Tuesday, May 1. Instead, he resigned before starting the job.
The news was broken Tuesday morning by Jennifer Rubin, a pro-Romney blogger at the Washington Post. The headline of Rubin's report said the openly gay Grenell had been "hounded from [the] Romney campaign by anti-gay conservatives." Rubin cited articles in National Review and the Daily Caller which she said "reflected the uproar by some social conservatives over the appointment."
Some publications on the left picked up on Rubin's report and suggested that Grenell had been driven from his job by, among others, Bryan Fischer, a top official at the social conservative American Family Association. Fischer is perhaps best known for a series of inflammatory statements about gays, Muslims, Mormons, and others. Last October, Fischer was scheduled to speak after Romney at the Values Voter summit in Washington. Knowing Fischer's record, and already concerned by anti-Mormon comments from another attendee, Robert Jeffress, Romney decided to use his speech to condemn Fischer, although not by name.
"We should remember that decency and civility are values, too," Romney said. "One of the speakers who will follow me today has crossed that line. Poisonous language does not advance our cause." For his part, Fischer later took the stage and said, "The next president needs to be a man of sincere, authentic, genuine Christian faith" -- a remark widely construed as a suggestion that the Mormon Romney be excluded from consideration for the White House.
Now, some observers are suggesting that Fischer has so much influence inside the Romney campaign that he could drive Richard Grenell out of his new job. In fact, Fischer has no sway at all inside the Romney campaign, and he didn't drive Grenell or anyone else out of a job at Romney headquarters. Neither did the other (relatively few) social conservatives who complained about the Grenell hire.
But what about the possibility that the heat Fischer and others generated from the outside made Team Romney reluctant to put Grenell in such a prominent position? Rubin reported that Grenell "decided to resign after being kept under wraps during a time when national security issues, including the president’s ad concerning Osama bin Laden, had emerged front and center in the campaign." One Grenell ally suggests he was worried that the Romney team might try to downplay his presence all the way through November's elections. All that suggests that Romney campaign officials, apparently cowed by the criticism from the social conservatives, did not want Grenell speaking publicly for the campaign. (Or, perhaps, that campaign officials were also concerned about some of Grenell's somewhat intemperate tweets.)
But Romney campaign officials say strongly that they did not keep Grenell under wraps or in any other way discourage him from taking the job. First, they point out that at the time (last week) in which Grenell was supposedly being held back, he was not yet an employee of the Romney campaign. Like a number of other new hires, officials say, Grenell was getting ready to move to Boston to begin work May 1. Romney officials fully anticipated he would begin his public role as spokesman then.
Instead, last weekend, officials say, Grenell got in touch with the campaign to say he would not take the job, after all. Some top Romney staffers, including Eric Fehrnstrom, one of Mitt Romney's closest advisers, urged Grenell to reconsider. In all, several Romney aides encouraged Grenell to come to Boston and start work. Whatever the criticisms from social conservatives, officials say, they wanted Grenell on the job.
In a brief statement on his departure, Grenell said, "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." Grenell thanked Romney for "his clear message to me that being openly gay was a non-issue for him and his team."
Grenell certainly seemed to direct blame toward the social conservatives who criticized his appointment, although he didn't say so directly. But it's also possible that gay politics more generally played a role in recent events.
Grenell is a self-described "activist" for gay marriage. In March, he sharply criticized Jonathan Capehart, an opinion writer for the Washington Post who is gay, for attending a state dinner at the Obama White House but not using the opportunity to confront President Obama over Obama's opposition to gay marriage. Writing in the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper, Grenell accused Capehart of selling out to Democratic leaders like Obama who don't support gay marriage, while bashing Republicans, even those who have more liberal positions on gay rights.
If Grenell could be so critical of Capehart, who does not work for the administration, for failing to hold Obama's opposition to gay marriage against him, then why did Grenell accept a position with Romney, who has expressed his own opposition to gay marriage in far stronger terms than Obama? (When Grenell took the job, Capehart shot back that Grenell had "chosen power over principle on marriage equality.") The answer isn't clear, but the circumstances of Grenell's early departure from Team Romney and his own strongly-expressed opinions suggest that gay politics, perhaps not just the opinions of social conservatives, might have played some role in the whole affair. But if Romney's aides are to be believed, it wasn't on their end.