Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign event… (Olivier Douliery / Abaca…)
Mitt Romney didn't exactly fire Richard Grenell, who is gay, as his foreign policy spokesman. But when the religious right got wind of Grenell's hiring, his job started to shrink.
Grenell was told to sit in on conference calls with reporters and not say anything, which is tantamount to firing him. He was told to be silent not merely on gay issues. He was told not to talk about anything, even foreign policy. A spokesman who is not allowed to speak — even internally — doesn't have much of a job. So Grenell quit, three weeks after he was hired.
For Romney, this is the first big flub of the general election campaign. Until now, his smooth-running machine was one of the more impressive things about his candidacy. It made you think that maybe, as a businessman, he really could bring some efficiency to the White House, if not to the government as a whole.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012
Besides being offensive, however, this episode is remarkably inept. Grenell apparently was completely open about his sexuality. Why did Romney appoint him in the first place if he was going to hang the guy out to dry as soon as there was any criticism? (And there never was much.) If you're going to be a bigot, at least be smart about it.
Although, as a weak-kneed liberal, I hate to talk like this, this episode does make you wonder about Romney's guts. He portrays himself (and probably thinks of himself) as a hard-nosed businessman, ready to make the tough decisions that professional politicians won't. Romney has even defended his famous flip-flops in these terms. "In the private sector," he says, "if you don't change your view when the facts change, well, you'll get fired for being stubborn and stupid."
I don't know about that. You see a lot of stubbornness and stupidity in stories about business, but not so much about business executives getting fired for it.
Romney seems obsessed with firing people. In January, you may recall, he committed a gaffe by saying he enjoyed doing it. He seems to consider it as evidence of backbone and a tough hide. He also likes to say that if you want this or that undesirable quality in your president, "I'm not your man." This also is supposed to signal toughness, as well as independence of thought.
Better evidence would have been telling the people who complained about his hiring of a gay man as an advisor where they could put their objections. And has he stopped to ask himself how he will manage to fill a Romney administration if he excludes all gay men (and women?) from the candidate pool?
Romney is right, of course, that there's nothing wrong with changing your mind. But you should (a) be prepared to admit it and (b) be prepared to explain it.
In his most famous flip-flop, about healthcare, Romney has tried, instead, to have it both ways. He has never renounced his Massachusetts healthcare plan, with its individual mandate almost identical to the one in President Obama's. He just says that he will veto "Obamacare" on Day One of his administration, because the individual mandate is so awful.
Nor has he explained his change of mind on abortion or gay rights, on which he once said he would be a better advocate than Ted Kennedy.
Many moderates and independents may still believe that at heart Romney is a moderate Republican who fortunately has no principles and will say whatever it takes to win. Actually, citizens of all stripes across the country more or less believe that Romney's been faking who he is, but it's moderates he must now convince that he's been lying like mad for the past year.
He's going to need a few really top-notch spin doctors to perform this operation successfully. Too bad for him that he just drove a good one away.
Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor of The Times, is a Bloomberg View columnist.