Richard Grenell, whose hiring was hailed as progress for gays in Republican Party politics, has resigned from the Romney campaign after an anti-gay backlash.
When, just over a week ago, Mitt Romney hired an openly gay former Bush administration official to serve as his spokesman on foreign policy, gay Republican activists hailed the move as progress -- a sign that the GOP was moving in a more tolerant direction, and that Romney was willing to stand up to the party's remaining anti-gay voices.
So much for that. On Tuesday, Richard Grenell announced he's leaving the Romney campaign in a statement emailed to friends:
I have decided to resign from the Romney campaign as the Foreign Policy and National Security Spokesman. 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. 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.
Foreign policy has been at the center of the presidential campaign in the past week, from the partisan fracas over the anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden to the Obama administration's emerging quandary over the escaped Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. Yet Grenell never issued a single statement or appeared on a conference call on behalf of the Romney campaign, and now we know why: According to the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, who broke the news, the campaign was reluctant to put him out front and risk incurring more wrath from social conservatives such as Bryan Fischer and Tony Perkins, who had criticized the hire.
To the activists who had cheered Grenell's hiring -- he was apparently the first-ever openly gay spokesman for a Republican presidential nominee -- the news came as a blow.
"It is unfortunate that while the Romney campaign made it clear that Grenell being an openly gay man was a non-issue for the governor and his team, the hyper-partisan discussion of issues unrelated to Ric's national security qualifications threatened to compromise his effectiveness on the campaign trail," said R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, who served alongside Grenell at the U.S. Mission to the U.N. "Ric was essentially hounded by the cacophony of the far-right and left," Cooper added.
Added Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of GOProud: "The bottom line is it's a sad day in America when the best and brightest are unable to do their jobs because a small fringe is so fascinated with their personal lives. Bryan Fischer and Tony Perkins and the anti-gay-for-pay crowd seem more interested in making sure people can't work in this country than our country's national security interests."
These activists were reluctant to pin blame on the Romney campaign for giving in to the anti-gay backlash, and the Romney campaign was clearly seeking to avoid the impression that it caved to pressure and pushed Grenell out because of his sexual orientation. Romney's campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, said in a statement: "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."
More than one Republican insider I spoke to wondered if Grenell, who had also drawn controversy for his off-message tweeting and combative persona, hadn't instead turned out to be a poor fit for the tightly disciplined, personality-averse Romney operation. If that's the case, Grenell's attempt to point the finger at voices of intolerance within the GOP may be a self-serving excuse.
Whether or not that's the case, though, the episode stands to hurt Romney by making him appear captive to the most extreme elements of the Republican base. That was the immediate response from the left to Grenell's resignation: "If Romney will cave to the far-right fringe on this, is there anything he won't give them when they ask?" said Michael Keegan, president of the liberal group People For the American Way. Teddy Goff, the digital director for the Obama campaign, tweeted: "Today we learned that in the year 2012, a Republican nominee for President can't have a gay person as spokesman."
When I originally reported on Grenell's hiring, Michelangelo Signorile, the gay activist and journalist, told me he didn't think the move would help Romney any among gay voters, who would be more concerned with the candidate's stances on policies important to them. But, he noted, it would be a signal to many non-gay moderates that Romney, on some level, shared their values of tolerance and inclusion. Now, deservedly or not, Romney has sent the opposite message: that he's unable to stand up to the voices of intolerance within the Republican Party.