Politics & Policy

Mitt Muzzles Richard Grenell

Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association
Silencing Grenell was a counter-productive move.

‘If Mitt Romney can be pushed around, intimidated, coerced, co-opted by a conservative radio talk show host in Middle America, then how is he going to stand up to the Chinese? How is he going to stand up to Putin?” So asked Bryan Fischer, a radio host with the American Family Association, after claiming credit for Richard Grenell’s scalp.

Grenell is the openly gay former foreign-policy spokesman for the Romney campaign. Before that, he worked for Ambassador John Bolton at the United Nations, easily the most revered diplomatic official among the base of the Republican Party since Jeane Kirkpatrick.

I don’t think Fischer deserves the “credit” he’s claiming, but it does remind me of the old line from Winston Churchill about how an appeaser is someone who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last. The reality be damned, it certainly appears that the Romney campaign fed Grenell to the crocs.

The political idiocy of Fischer’s culture-war whoop over Grenell’s resignation should be apparent. If you want a politician to adopt your position, you shouldn’t then mock him for adopting your position. That’s not smart politics or lobbying; it’s public bullying as theater: “Ha ha! I made you do it!”

#ad#As for the reality, after talking to several people in and around the Romney campaign, I’m convinced it’s just not true that Grenell was dumped to appease the religious right, or at least it’s more complicated than that.

First of all, if the Romney campaign were trying to placate the religious right — as both the Fischer crowd and the liberal punditocracy contend — it has a funny way of showing it. “We wanted him to stay with our team,” Romney explained on Fox News last week. “He’s a very accomplished spokesperson, and we select people not based upon their ethnicity or their sexual preference or their gender but upon their capability.”

That’s hardly a dog whistle to the Fischer crowd.

But just because the team wanted to keep Grenell on board doesn’t mean it was willing or able to let him do his job. It appears the campaign wanted to keep him muzzled until the criticism of the appointment blew over (such criticism also came from National Review Online, where I am an editor-at-large). The complaint seems to be that having a gay-marriage proponent in the Romney foreign-policy shop is untenable. Matthew Franck of the Witherspoon Institute, writing at National Review Online, argued that the issue wasn’t Grenell’s sexuality per se but the fact that he was “a loose cannon” with an “unhinged devotion” to the issue of gay marriage.

I don’t buy it, largely because the evidence is so scant. On one side there are some overly aggressive tweets from Grenell about a Washington Post columnist’s allegedly hypocritical refusal to confront President Obama over his opposition to gay marriage. Meanwhile, Grenell worked for eight years for George W. Bush, serving as spokesman not only to Bolton but also to Ambassadors John Negroponte, John Danforth, and Zalmay Khalilzad. While at the United Nations, Grenell earned the best kinds of enemies: the anti-American bureaucrats at the U.N. and the journalists who love them.

His enemies now are a more mixed bag. Sensible social conservatives like Franck should understand that if you’re going to oppose gay marriage, you will have zero chance of convincing anyone your position isn’t driven by anti-gay animus if you’re also opposed to gays working in policy areas that have nothing to do with gay marriage.

As for Fischer, I’ve avoided making him the avatar of the “religious right” the way some in the media have, because doing so gives Fischer far too much credit and the religious right far too little. I’ve talked to many prominent Christian conservatives about this, and the idea that Fischer speaks for them is ludicrous. Fischer, who’s argued that the First Amendment doesn’t protect the religious freedom of non-Christians, doesn’t speak for any members of the Christian right I know.

Gagging Grenell was a bad play for the Romney team because it guaranteed the issue wouldn’t go away. The only way to dispel concerns about the man’s fitness for the job was to let him do his job. Muzzling him until he resigned was the worst possible way to handle it because all it did was feed crocodiles like Fischer.

 — Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Tyranny of Clichés. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.

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