Mitt Romney: Still Afraid

The departure of Ric Grenell from the Romney campaign is something that approximately zero undecided voters know or care anything about, but does it tell us anything interesting or useful about Mitt Romney himself? In case you haven't heard, Grenell is a longtime Republican communications professional who was hired by the Romney campaign to be a spokesperson on foreign policy; then liberals started criticizing Grenell for some nasty tweets he had sent, while social conservatives started criticizing him for being gay. The Romney campaign didn't care much about the liberals' criticism, but was apparently quite unnerved by the conservatives' criticism. Even though they knew he was gay before they hired him and had assured him it wasn't a problem, Grenell soon resigned after it became apparent the Romney campaign was going to pretend he didn't actually work for them anyway, sidelining him while they tried to figure out what to do. So what have we learned?

The simple answer is that we've learned that Mitt Romney won't stand up for the people he hires in the face of criticism from some of the most repugnant people in his party. After all, it wasn't as though mainstream conservatives were calling for Grenell's head; as I said, he had a long record of service to the GOP. No, it was a few repellent characters like Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, a hateful bigot so despicable he almost seems like a character out of some B-movie (here's a taste, if you're unfamiliar with him). But that's probably not the most important answer. After all, it isn't as though before this anyone thought Romney was a politician of unique courage, willing to stand up to extremists within his own party, and now they've been disabused of that impression.

What the episode does show, however, is that Romney is never going to be able to truly "move to the center." We knew the hard right didn't trust him, but what we may not have known is that they are going to keep finding ways for him to prove he fears them. He may be their de facto nominee, but they're not ready to line up and work for the broader cause of defeating Barack Obama, at least not without constant reassurance. This won't be the last time Romney will be forced to show conservatives that he hasn't actually moved, and that as president he will continue to kowtow to them and their prejudices.

You can look at episodes like this one and say that Romney isn't really acting rationally. He's placating conservatives, who are going to vote for him anyway, but potentially alienating the independents he needs, mostly by reinforcing many of the character attacks being made against him for being cowardly and unprincipled. But the reason he'll respond to the pressure from the right is that that pressure is intense and direct. Independent voters don't have angry radio shows on which he'll be denounced. They won't be calling his campaign staffers to complain and issue threats. But conservatives do, and they will. Even if Romney never actually moves anywhere, they'll continue to demand that he prove his fealty to them and their beliefs. And he'll continue to comply, to the detriment of his hopes for the White House.

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