Columns » Jay Barth

Barth: The religious right's Etch-a-Sketch: Romney



Last week should have been the time for Americans to become familiar with the voice and words of Richard Grenell, Mitt Romney's then-national security spokesperson. Indeed, foreign policy matters will likely never be as central to the 2012 presidential campaign debate as they were during the week of the first anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden and President Obama's major statement on the future of the American military operation in Afghanistan.

However, rather than establishing his own persona as Romney's voice on foreign policy and bolstering his boss's perceived weaknesses in that area (extraordinary for a GOP presidential candidate in the modern era), the talented Grenell spent the week silenced by the Romney campaign. Before the week was out Grenell had resigned in frustration from the campaign to return to a life in the private sector.

The sole reason for Grenell's disrespectful treatment was the fact that he is openly gay. From the moment of his hiring, the Romney campaign faced an ongoing assault by the religious right. The campaign quickly wilted under that pressure. Upon his hiring, one American Family Association leader tweeted: "If personnel is policy, [Romney's] message to the pro-family community: drop dead." Only a week later, the same leader took credit for the personnel change.

Romney's neutering of Grenell tells us two troubling things. One is about Romney himself. The other is about what we should expect about the internal dynamics within a prospective Romney administration.

Make no mistake, other national leaders have decided that defending one of their hand-picked lieutenants is not worth the cost and have pushed them out. For instance, Bill Clinton was rightly criticized for failing to defend Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders after her fairly prescient remarks on the war on drugs and teen sexuality. As problematic as Clinton's treatment of Elders was (and Clinton himself, in his autobiography, voiced regret about how it played out), her departure was based on her views and the way she expressed them rather than an inherent trait as with Grenell. Indeed, Grenell's departure — not driven by past scandal, gaffe, or misguided views, but rather by simply who he is — may be unprecedented in modern politics.

As a "DNA Mormon" (a descendent of one of Utah's founding families), Romney has faced discrimination based on a trait similarly fundamental to his being. He more than most should understand the frustration and pain of being judged solely on such a trait and, to Romney's credit, he has regularly voiced his opposition to discrimination against gay men and lesbians in the abstract (aside from issues related to marriage). However, when the abstract became concrete in the case of Grenell, Romney folded within a week, rolled by the forces of discrimination.

Because a campaign decision like that regarding Grenell is obviously one in which the candidate would himself have been deeply involved, Romney's lack of personal fortitude is deeply troubling. More alarming is what it showed about the power that the religious right has over Romney's decision-making.

Throughout his time as a national political figure, Mitt Romney has fought for the respect of religious conservatives. As a member of what is seen as a "cult" by many on the Christian right and with moderate and shifting positions on the issues most salient to them, Romney has always been seen warily by religious conservatives. Because of their role in the presidential nomination process, gaining this group's approval (or at least their grudging acceptance) has been crucial for Romney's political future.

In the Grenell case, the religious right was shown that they can easily roll Romney. The dozens of appointments that would be made by a President Romney would all face the same veto possibility.

Mitt Romney may be an Etch-a-Sketch, but last week's events showed that he is one where the knobs are controlled by the religious right forces in the GOP.

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