You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Who’s the Real Mitt Romney? Richard Grenell Has Taught Us

Who is the real Mitt Romney? Richard Grenell, the openly gay conservative who abruptly resigned as a Romney campaign spokesman, has answered that question for us.

The latest media accounts of Grenell’s departure suggest that neither Romney nor his campaign advisers had a problem with Grenell’s homosexuality or even his support for gay marriage. According to an account in the New York Times, Grenell pointed out during his job interviews that his background “could be an issue.” Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s longtime aide and strategist, reportedly told him “it’s not an issue for us.” 

That was probably true and, as it turns out, utterly irrelevant. Right-wingers protested the hiring of Grenell from the get-go and, instead of backing Grenell publicly, the Romney campaign sidelined him. Last week, according to reporting by Andrew Sullivan, campaign officials specifically instructed Grenell to remain silent on a call about foreign policy—even though it was a call Grenell had helped to organize and would have, under normal circumstances, helped to lead. It was not the first such incident and Grenell, apparently convinced the campaign had undermined his authority, to step down. “It’s not that the campaign cared whether Ric Grenell was gay,” a Republican adviser told the Times. “They believed this was a nonissue. But they didn’t want to confront the religious right.” 

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, a die-hard and well-connected Romney supporter, was the first to report Grenell's exit from the campaign and told a similar story. “Despite the controversy in new media and in conservative circles,” Rubin observed, with apparent disappointment, “there was no public statement of support for Grenell by the campaign and no supportive social conservatives were enlisted to calm the waters.” 

That silence speaks volumes, because what matters ultimately is not what Romney or his advisers think but how they act. When Romney ran for governor of Massachusetts, he made overtures to the gay community, telling the newspaper Bay Windows, “I think extremists who would force their views on the party and try to shape the party are making a mistake.” But, as my colleague Tim Noah pointed out on Wednesday, those extremists are shaping the party right now—and Romney, clearly, is not about to stop them:

It would be unfortunate if Romney were able to persuade people that the GOP isn’t captive to its extremists, because even if Romney showed some bravery on this issue it wouldn't really be true in general. Not to put too fine a point on it, if you are gay you’d have to be out of your mind to support today’s Republican party.

Tim notes that this isn't just about standing up to the right wing on gay equality, although that ought to matter plenty for its own sake. If you scrutinize Romney’s statements on just about any major issue, you’ll discover that he speaks in carefully calibrated phrases that never mean quite what you thought they did the first time you heard them. As Slate’s Will Saletan observed in his thorough dissection of Romney’s statements on abortion,

Romney has complex views and a talent for framing them either way, depending on his audience. He values truth, so he makes sure there’s an element of it in everything he says. He can’t stand to break his promises, so he reinterprets them. ... The problem with Romney isn’t that he keeps changing his mind. The problem is that he keeps changing his story.

All politicians do this, to an extent. But Romney practices the art of obfuscation with unusual skill and frequency. Did he really oppose the auto bailout? Did he really think the individual mandate was a good idea for the rest of the country? Did he really support the Paul Ryan budget? I’ve researched all of these topics extensively and I still cannot tell you with certainty what Romney actually thinks or what his past statements meant. Not even Bill Clinton required this much parsing.

Romney's cagey statements means that, in theory, he can be anything to anybody. So if you’re a progressive and you want evidence that his instincts are more moderate than his rhetoric suggests, you’ll find it. But you'd be foolish to weight that evidence heavily. As Greg Sargent put it, the Grenell episode is a litmus test of “Romney’s willingness to take on extreme voices within his own party.” The results could not be more clear. He wasn’t willing to take them on during the primaries and he’s not willing to take them on now.

Update: With a few more links, cites, etc.

follow me on twitter @CitizenCohn