Romney’s Gay Ex-Spokesman

Ruthlessly avoiding fights that aren't worth the risk is shrewd leadership. But Romney still needs to show he can fight and win.

I appended an update to Doug’s “Openly Gay Romney Aide Resigns Amid Furor From Social Conservatives” pushing back against Doug’s conclusion Richard Grenell was forced to resign because social conservatives were outraged by having an openly gay man in that position

I’m not sure I’m buying this narrative. Yes, Grenell is gay. Yes, some right wingers were angry that a gay man was named Romney’s foreign policy spokesman. On the other hand, this man was openly gay when he served as John Bolton’s spokesman. While I’m no fan of Bolton, he’s a veritable superhero on the right. And there’s this from ABC:

But, in an interview with ABC News, a source familiar with Grenell’s departure from the Romney campaign disputed the “under wraps” suggestion.

This source said Grenell, whose hiring was first reported on April 19, had not yet started his duties as the campaign’s top national security spokesman and was in the process of moving from Los Angeles to Boston.

Tuesday would have been his first actual day on the job.

“He wasn’t under wraps; he wasn’t a spokesperson yet,” according to the individual with knowledge of Grenell’s hiring and resignation. “If he had wanted to, he would be a spokesman right now.”

Among those who called Grenell in recent days to try to persuade him not to quit: his former boss and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton; and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman. [emphasis added]

Let’s keep our powder dry on this one until we get something more definitive. It sure sounds like it was something other than the anti-gay backlash at work here.

Balloon Juice‘s mistermix retorts, “The thing that Joyner can’t seem to wrap his head around is that the Republican Party has gotten worse on gay rights in the last couple of years. And Joyner’s man Romney goes right along with that, because going along is what he does best.”

The first part of that is doubtless true, although it’s something I’ve recognized in various postings and outside articles. While the country as a whole has gotten much more comfortable with homosexuality over the past fifteen years or so, with even recently unthinkable things like same-sex marriage becoming acceptable, the religious right has become more militant on the issue. Indeed, that’s not so much a contradiction as a cause and effect: losing ground on such a fundamental issue without time to psychologically adjust has religious conservatives on the warpath. So, yes, the fact that they tolerated John Bolton having an openly gay spokesman a few years ago may not be dispositive.

Doug’s followup, “Grenell Resignation Tied To Social Conservative Flap Over His Homosexuality,” sheds a little more light on the story. The Romney campaign didn’t anticipate the backlash against a guy with such strong Movement credentials, especially in such a relatively minor role. (I follow politics and foreign policy for a living; if I’d heard Grenell’s name before the brouhaha over his resignation, I don’t recall.) Given not unfounded worries about losing the base, either Romney or his team decided that the best strategy was just to lie low for a while and let the controversy blow over. Grenell decided that he wasn’t going to be able to function effectively in his role and resigned. The Romney folks were unable to persuade him to stay, although probably didn’t fight too hard.

My default position on internecine issues of this sort, regardless of whether they’re occurring in the camps of candidates I favor or oppose, is to dismiss them as minor. There’s not enough here, so far at least, to move me off that position here.

It’s pretty clear that, despite being a pretty devout Mormon, Romney’s more progressive than the base on gay issues. (So, for that matter, are most Republican elites, including George W. Bush, Ken Mehlman, and John Bolton.) Would I have preferred that he took a more proactive position here, publicly defending Grenell’s credentials and declaring that he’ll appoint qualified people without regard to sexual orientation? Maybe. Certainly, I’d prefer living in a world where taking that stance would enhance his stature and chance of getting elected president. But I’m hard pressed to think campaign foreign policy spokesman is a hill worth fighting over.

Certainly, Barack Obama has displayed a ruthless willingness to abandon controversial nominees. Bill Richardson, Tom Daschle, Samantha Power, and Elizabeth Warren come readily to mind. Granted, none were controversial because of immutable issues like race, gender, or sexual orientation. But Obama has nonetheless frequently decided that it’s just not worth expending political capital fighting for good people who are politically inconvenient. (See also Hilary Rosen.) Picking battles prudently and ruthlessly avoiding ones that aren’t worth the risk is both lamentable from a personal standpoint and reasonable, if not admirable, from a leadership standpoint.

The difference on this score between Obama and Romney is that the former has had the opportunity to pick and win some fights on the national stage and the latter has not. There’s a classic episode of “Happy Days” in which Richie is getting picked on by some gang toughs. He asks the Fonz for advice and he responds that nobody ever picks on him because he stands up for himself and intimidates them with his confidence. As Richie is about to implement that advice, Fonz adds a caveat: You have to first have been in a fight.

Yes, Romney came out on top of a grueling nominating fight but one against a much weaker field than Obama faced in 2008. And the vagaries of running for office as a Republican in the most Democratic state in the union and then running for president at a time when the Republican nominating electorate is more conservative than ever have established Romney as a wishy-washy guy who goes where the winds blow. While this likely wasn’t the fight to pick, Romney’s going to have to pick some to demonstrate that he stands for something and is willing to get bloodied fighting for it.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. bluepen9uin says:

    Have a hard time with the data point that no one complained when Grenell was Bolton’s spokesperson versus a presidential nominee. Like apples and oranges. These types of groups pick fights where they provide the biggest “press” opportunity. They picked a good one and can declare victory even if the underlying reason for the departure has nothing to do with their complaining. The optics work in their favor.

  2. That was a long walk from “minor” to “pick a fight.” And really, dehumanizes the story. Here is a guy who believes and supports GOP goals. He is still the center of the story. It’s about why the party, including Romney, can’t support him.

    You seem to presume that in his heart Romney has some negotiable support for the guy, and being on the fence, he could us this occasion to prove himself.

    That’s the wrong framing. Romney should not think of this as about himself.

  3. As an aside, it’s sad that Obama dropped support for Warren because she was too much what his base wanted him to be. Obama is a conservative.

  4. Phillip says:

    I don’t recall John Bolton ever attempting to sell his social conservative credentials to the general electorate, nor did his position really have much to do with domestic social policy. Comparing the two is ridiculous, and I say that as a former social conservative myself.

  5. mattb says:

    Quoting James:

    Yes, Romney came out on top of a grueling nominating fight but one against a much weaker field than Obama faced in 2008.

    As a side note, I think this is both correct and something that a lot of people refuse to acknowledge.

    For better or worse (I’ll vote worse), the Republican/Conservative base continues to put forward the idea that they were “rich” with options this year.

    I understand that its never easy to admit how weak a side is, but its scary that so many vocal folks felt that Romney was among the weakest options on the stage.

  6. mistermix says:

    The difference on this score between Obama and Romney is that the former has had the opportunity to pick and win some fights on the national stage and the latter has not.

    Not quite. Romney has misjudged what acts would provoke a fight, and when he is about to get into one, he runs away. Is there any clearer example of that than the Grenell appointment? Mitt acknowledged that Grenell’s sexual orientation was an issue when he hired him (i.e., he should have know he was picking a fight) but when it came to the “hold my gold” moment, he didn’t want that fight.

  7. But I’m hard pressed to think campaign foreign policy spokesman is a hill worth fighting over.

    The hill that needed to be fought over isn’t a campaign foreign policy spokesman. It’s:
    1. Establishing that he is, in fact, a leader and is not going to spend the next four years getting his decisions approved by others.
    2. Showing that he has a spine and can stand up for the right thing when there’s pressure to take the easy way out.
    3. Show they people who will become more important members of his administration that he’s going to stick up for them if they join his administration.
    He failed all three tests, which entirely aside from the base morality pretty much underscores what a horrible leader he would be. He pretty much confirmed the spineless, flip-flopping, empty suit characture that’s been following him since the 2008 election cycle.

  8. Tano says:

    Romney is a coward.

  9. PD Shaw says:

    Making an issue of a nonissue (a staff member’s sexuality) is generally counterintutitive and I believe most p.r. folks will say not to elevate it, if the media asks say its not an issue. The election will not be tipped one iota by these events.

    The one example I can think of in elevating a nonissue was Romney giving that speech about how his religion was not an issue. That didn’t change anything. Did Grinnell want to be a subject of that kind of attention? Sounds like “no.”

  10. legion says:

    It’s pretty clear that, despite being a pretty devout Mormon, Romney’s more progressive than the base on gay issues.

    No, that’s your charitable assumption. I think it’s far more likely that Romney simply has no clue whatsoever about just how virulently the Republican base _despises_ homosexuals. I think it’s also entirely likely Romney never knew anything about Grinnell’s sexuality at all – I suspect a senior staffer just waved his name in front of Romney, said “this guys has experience & credentials – he’d be good on foreign policy” and Mitt said “sure. whatever.” and went back to watching the Small Folk polish his silverware.

  11. al-Ameda says:

    it’s pretty clear that, despite being a pretty devout Mormon, Romney’s more progressive than the base on gay issues.

    It depends on what time of the day, and what audience he’s speaking to, right? There’s no way of knowing.

  12. sam says:


    And the vagaries of running for office as a Republican in the most Democratic state in the union and then running for president at a time when the Republican nominating electorate is more conservative than ever have established Romney as a wishy-washy guy who goes where the winds blow.

    James, for all its liberalism, Massachusetts has a history of electing Republican governors. I don’t recall Bill Weld or Paul Celluci or Ed King trimming their sails when they ran for governor. In fact, Celluci and King were successful in implementing a pretty conservative agenda. Romney is a wishy-washy guy who goes where the winds blow. The guy will flat say anything to get elected. There ain’t no there there.

  13. PJ says:

    Brave Sir Mittens ran away.
    Bravely ran away, away!
    When danger reared its ugly head,
    He bravely turned his tail and fled.
    Yes, brave Sir Mittens turned about
    And gallantly he chickened out.
    Bravely taking to his feet
    He beat a very brave retreat,
    Bravest of the brave, Sir Mittens!

  14. @PD Shaw:

    So he wanted to be a quietly shunned minority? Is that what he really wanted?

    Maybe I’m just really out there, but could see him wanting acceptance, and perhaps even respect.

  15. Gustopher says:

    @al-Ameda: Romney donated $10,000 to NOM, so it’s clear that he’s willing to put his pocket change against gay issues.

    I really don’t see how he is any different from the Republican base on equal rights for gays, other than tone.

  16. MM says:

    . But I’m hard pressed to think campaign foreign policy spokesman is a hill worth fighting over.

    On the one hand, this is true as far as a minor spokesperson for a fledgling campaign. The larger issue is that this send the signal to the base not that Mitt is one of us, but that he will back down if we start howling. It’s going to be tough to present as a moderate when you end up reacting to people like Bryan Fischer.

  17. legion says:

    I just want to support what I said earlier; having come across this little piece of the NYT article:

    It turned out he was at home in Los Angeles, listening in, but stone silent and seething. A few minutes earlier, a senior Romney aide had delivered an unexpected directive, according to several people involved in the call.

    “Ric,” said Alex Wong, a policy aide, “the campaign has requested that you not speak on this call.” Mr. Wong added, “It’s best to lay low for now.”

    Think that bit through for a minute… The “source” speaking to ABC news is very clearly lying to try and cover the campaign’s butt; the Romney campaign hired a guy to be their foreign policy spokesman, and then told him to “lay low” once the sh*tstorm blew on about his (open) sexuality. And the campaign itself actually believed that if they just kept quite about it for a while, the religious fundies that were all het up over this “gay” thing would forget about it & let it blow over.

    They actually thought that.

    The entire Republican party is truly run by idiot children.

  18. RalfW says:

    “it’s pretty clear that, despite being a pretty devout Mormon, Romney’s more progressive than the base on gay issues.”

    Hmmm. How many in the base have given $10,000 to Maggie Gallagher‘s virulently homophobic National Organization for Marriage. I get that Mitt can be comfortable around gay Republicans as staffers and also oppose same-sex marriage. Plenty of people fit that bill. But giving serious cash (by average person’s measure, since $10K is pocket money to a guy like Mitt) to a seriously dishonest operation that aggressively smears gay and lesbian people? That’s not what I’d ever term ‘more progressive.’

  19. jukeboxgrad says:

    It’s pretty clear that, despite being a pretty devout Mormon, Romney’s more progressive than the base on gay issues.

    As others have mentioned, that depends on the weather.

    Recall that Romney stood silently while a debate audience booed a gay soldier. This should have been a big clue to Grenell regarding what to expect from Mitt.

  20. Scott F. says:

    James –

    I can’t argue with your point about picking one’s battles and I agree with you that Obama has prudently done the same. But the examples you offer of Obama’s abandoned nominees (Daschle, Powers and Warren,) do not support the case you appear to be trying to make for Romney, i.e. his actions now (and over the last several months) do not reflect who he is at his core.

    Going back to his 2004 Dem convention “Red/Blue State” speech, Obama has consistently staked out a position that, despite our differences, Americans can find ways to work together to solve the nation’s problems. He pushed that proposition hard in the election of 2008, especially in the general (the parade of Republicans he’d worked well with, the “we can disagree without being disagreeable” statement in every stump speech), but he didn’t abandon the idea in the primaries either as you’ll remember Hillary Clinton slammed the idea as naïve. If you look at the rhetoric behind even the “Hope and Change” and “Yes We Can” campaign themes, you must concede the new era he was offering was one of post-partisan cooperation and not some progressive utopia. (That these themes were vague enough to allow the Democratic base to project a more liberal ideal onto them was probably calculated, but it doesn’t change what Obama was saying.)

    Once in office, much to the chagrin of a lot of liberals who projected the more liberal ideal on him, Obama has governed very much in line with the political philosophy he’d been laying out for years. You can see that in his initiatives like the ACA and FinReg which are so disappointing to so many precisely because they are built based on centrist compromise and in his foreign policy which is closer to traditionally Republican positioning than expected. And, you can see that in his abandonment of Powers, Warren and Daschle. He didn’t drop them in some effort to appease his base, but despite his base. They’re more examples of Obama seeking the pragmatic center, just as he has always said he would do.

    On the other hand, you seem to think that Romney’s current rhetoric and actions do not give us an accurate picture of how Romney would govern. I think you are kidding yourself. Romney has shown he will follow the path of least resistance – always. He has shown this his entire political life, from his days of more liberal positions when he ran for office and governed in a liberal state to the more severely conservative way he is behaving now for his base. Grennel is just the latest example. I can’t see how you could think he would somehow act differently than he has for decades once he was President.

    Considering the amount of posting you’ve done decrying the numerous ways the Republican party has gone off the rails in recent years and adding to that the near certainty that a Romney win would also entail Republican control of both chambers of Congress, you’ve got to know in your heart where a passive Romney administration would take this country. You’re a smart guy. Don’t be a fool.

  21. gVOR08 says:

    James’ take is that Romney needs to pick a couple of fights to show that he’s willing to fight. Right now it’s a pretty specific need. Obama said Romney wouldn’t have ordered the bin Laden raid. (I don’t recall that he mentioned Romney by name, but the intent seems clear.) Romney says he would have. Does anybody outside the 27% believe him? Besides his serial lying and his clear statement in ’08 that he wouldn’t go into Pakistan after bin Laden; has Romney ever done anything really “gutsy”? That’s a question for the group, is there anything?

  22. michael reynolds says:


    I asked the other day whether anyone could cite a single difficult obstacle in Romney’s life and Tim Watson (sp?) offered his wife’s MS. I accept that. But since it happened well into Romney’s mature adulthood it isn’t a character-defining moment.

    My two kids, both living very good lives, have been through more (obsessive compulsive disorder and abandonment/adoption) and they’re 14 and 12 respectively. There’s just nothing at all in Romney’s life but good luck and smooth sailing.

    It’s no surprise that he’s devoid of empathy or an ability to relate. It’s no surprise he’s spineless and has contempt for voters. He’s a to the manor born trust fund baby. Even George W. Bush had his alcoholism and some early failures and some military service. His father in turn had been to war. Bill Clinton had a very tough childhood. Romney’s never been tested at all.

  23. Scott F. says:

    Uh, no?

  24. al-Ameda says:


    has Romney ever done anything really “gutsy”?

    Sure, he recently authorized the construction and installation of a car elevator in his new home in La Jolla, CA. Given the amount of earthquake fault activity in Southern California, it took guts to do that.

  25. PD Shaw says:

    @john personna: I indicated in the first thread that I believed that Grenell should not have quit, but I do think his feelings on being the object of a public debate are relevant. His statements in his resignation strike as someone who does not want to become a household name for being gay.

  26. @PD Shaw:

    The way you’ve set that up, the far right has launched its attack on him, Romney has adopted a wait it out policy, and then Grenell decides he doesn’t like it.

    Kind of the tail wagging the dog of the story.