Mitt Romney’s campaign was weathering a minor controversy by week’s end related to the resignation of a foreign policy aide who was gay, forcing the campaign to deny it had caved to fringe social conservatives who’d pressured Romney to fire the aide.
“We wanted him to stay with our team. He's a very accomplished spokesperson, and we select people not based upon their ethnicity or sexual preference or gender, but their capability,” Romney said Friday on Fox News of the aide, Richard Grenell, who stepped down from the Romney campaign on Tuesday.
Grenell was hired to act as Romney's spokesman on foreign policy and was, in fact, a veteran Republican aide, having served as U.N. Ambassador John Bolton's spokesman. He’d also built up a reputation over time for being especially combative with reporters.
But his resignation, announced on Tuesday after just two short weeks with the Romney campaign, has become ensnared by gay rights politics. In a statement Tuesday to the Washington Post, Grenell suggested that his sexual orientation had prompted social conservatives to sructinize the Romney campaign. In order to avoid causing a headache for his employer, Grenell said he had decided to step down, despite never having begun in earnest.
“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,” he told the Post.
There was a degree of dyspepsia from the Family Research Council and Gary Bauer surrounding Grenell’s hiring, but the conservative outrage at the hiring was far from widespread.
Rather, voices on the right and press accounts of Grenell's ouster describe a more mixed set of variables that contributed to his resignation. After receiving blowback associated with Grenell’s combative reputation and controversial tweets on his account (which have since been scrubbed), Grenell was kept under wraps. That period overlapped with a fairly active cycle of foreign policy news, which, reportedly, drove Grenell’s frustration.
Complicating matters was the Romney campaign’s short leash with social conservatives, who have been stubborn in rallying around the presumptive Republican nominee.
“I don't think this has unfolded the way [the Romney campaign] wanted it to unfold. But I also think the initial reaction and initial assumptions people made weren't particularly surprising,” said Liz Mair, a Republican strategist who serves on the board of GOProud, a Republican group that advocates for gay rights.
She suggested that even if the Romney campaign hadn’t parted ways with Grenell because of his sexuality, the haphazard way in which the former Massachusetts governor had previously courted conservatives fed into a storyline that the Romney campaign caved to social conservatives.
“The ‘pander-bear’ narrative is a problem, because it led to people concluding he did something for reasons I don't think he did,” she suggested.
Moreover, the whole issue has put the Romney campaign on its heels when it comes to gay rights, forcing them to walk a fine line between allaying social conservatives’ concerns and not appearing to be intolerant to the general electorate.
That’s reflective of the evolving public views on same-sex marriage. A March Gallup poll found that a 53 percent of Americans said marriages among same-sex couples deserve recognition – the first time a majority had expressed support for legal gay marriage. (That same poll found that 28 percent of Republicans favor same-sex marriage.)
“Let me say this about Mitt Romney: when it comes to hiring, he strictly looks at the qualifications of the applicants. He does not consider extraneous factors like the race, ethnicity or sexual orientation,” Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said Friday morning on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown.”
Fehrnstrom referenced “voices of intolerance” that had come forth during the debate over Grenell, and described his boss, Romney, as someone who’s “confronted” those voices.
Romney has been relatively unambiguous about his support for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution intended to define marriage as limited to one man and one woman. And he hasn't shied away from using that to his political advantage.
"On my watch, we fought hard and prevented Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage," he said at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in reference to his state supreme court's decision during the Romney governorship allowing same-sex marraiges. "When I am president, I will preserve the Defense of Marriage Act and I will fight for a federal amendment defining marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman."
But in other instances, Romney has sought to be a moderating influence within the GOP.
"Poisonous language does not advance our cause. It has never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind," he said at the Values Voters Summit last fall. (This line was the instance Fehrnstrom had cited as an example of Romney confronting intolerance. However, that remark was directed toward another speaker who had called Romney's Mormon faith a "cult," and wasn't specifically referencing same-sex marriage.)
But well before the Grenell flap emerged, Romney also described himself as an opponent of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
"I am in favor of gay rights, but I believe marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman," he said last summer on CNN. In that same interview, he declined to say whether he thought homosexuality was a sin.
And at the "Meet the Press"/Facebook GOP debate in New Hampshire, Romney made this declaration: "If people are looking for someone who -- who will discriminate against gays or will in any way try and suggest that people -- that have different sexual orientation don’t have full rights in this country, they won’t find that in me."
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