04/25/2012 10:08 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

What Romney's Choice of a Gay Spokesman Means

A few weeks ago I made a case for why President Obama needs to come out of the closet on gay marriage, noting that the president, if he wants to create enthusiasm within elements of his base, must distinguish himself further from Mitt Romney on the gay issue, given that Romney, wrapping up the primaries, would now be trying to blur the lines. Sure enough, the blurring began last week with the splashy appointment of Richard Grenell, Romney's new foreign policy spokesman, who happens to be gay.

But no, Grenell isn't just gay, like some other gay Republicans who keep their homosexuality quiet and rarely advocate for gay rights while always advocating for lower taxes (and are thus welcomed by the right-wing base). No, from the point of view of the evangelical right, which was just riding high on Rick Santorum and forcing Romney to the extremes, Grenell is a radical homosexual, or, as the American Family Association's Bryan Fisher put it in a tweet last week, an "out and loud gay."

Grenell is in a long-term relationship, which, from the hard right's perspective, he flaunts in people's faces. Having served in the Bush administration as spokesperson for the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, he waged a very public battle against the state department to include his partner's name along with the spouses of heterosexual personnel in diplomatic documents.

He is also a staunch and vocal advocate for what much of the Republican base believes is an effort to destroy the institution of marriage. As I noted two days ago, Grenell told Kerry Eleveld of The Advocate in 2008 that though he and his partner met in New York, he lamented that they couldn't marry there at the time. "It is not an option for us in New York, but hopefully someday soon it will be," he said. "In my mind, and in Matt's mind, this is it. We're married."

And Grenell believes Obama, whom Romney described just two months ago as "aggressively trying to pave the path to same-sex marriage," has been inadequate on gay rights. That's right. He wrote a blistering op-ed in the Washington Blade (which gave the president no accolades for his major accomplishments on LGBT rights, like, say, ending "don't ask, don't tell," signing a hate crimes law, no longer defending the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court, and signing executive orders to foster more equality for transgender people) attacking Obama for not coming out for marriage equality, calling him a "duplicitous president" and lashing gay leaders for allowing Democrats to take them for granted.

Of course, if Grenell truly believes all of that about Obama -- and LGBT leaders -- the big question is: What the hell is he doing working for Romney, who has promised to "promote and defend" a federal marriage amendment, and who disagrees with Grenell entirely about Obama, saying that the president is in fact "trying to pave the path to same-sex marriage"? We'll come back to that question, first trying to answer this one: Why did Romney bring him in?

No matter how combative a defender of right-wing foreign policy Grenell may be, surely there are many people who could do this job but who won't bring such attention to themselves. So, we have to assume Romney sees a plus in that attention.

Perhaps, more than just making the typical move toward the middle after the primary season, Romney realizes that he'll never get a strong turnout from the hardcore evangelical base. Therefore, the campaign will do whatever it can to get as many of them as possible out to vote while also telegraphing a much different message to independents, moderate Republicans, and wavering Democrats who voted for Obama but are experiencing Obama fatigue, all in an attempt to blur those lines.

And how could Grenell work for Romney after Romney has backed the National Organization for Marriage's draconian pledge? In that way Grenell is not much different from many other gay Republicans. They share positions with Republicans on a variety of issues and hope to change the party on the gay issue. In the process, however, some of them (not all) are deluded or are just plain dishonest about where the GOP is right now on gay rights, sacrificing principle for personal advancement.

Grenell seems to be one of those. For him to claim that Obama and John McCain (who backed Prop 8 and defended "don't ask, don't tell" to its death) had the same positions on gay rights, and to say in a recent tweet (now scrubbed from his feed) that "Romney's position on gay rights/marriage is exactly the same as Obama's and Hillary Clinton's" is preposterous.

That said, the differences between the candidates on the issue, going forward, will likely remain lost in the details, because our media often fail to bring forth those details -- a deficiency Republicans rely upon and exploit -- and Romney and his promoters will certainly be saying he is the same on the issue of gay marriage as Obama, helping to depress enthusiasm among gay voters while making him appear less harsh to those Obama-fatigued independents.

As I wrote in that column earlier in the month:

I've heard from caller after caller to my radio program, people from all across the country who describe themselves as gay Republicans and gay independents, or as straight, socially liberal independents or moderate Republicans, who voted for Obama in 2008. They're experiencing Obama fatigue and were never really that loyal, voting for Obama mostly because the GOP had hit rock bottom under Bush. They're looking for reasons to vote for Romney, or, rather, against Obama.

And that's why Romney's choice is a further signal to the Obama campaign that the president, if he wants to create excitement in his base and stop Romney from blurring those lines, needs to come out of the closet on gay marriage and embrace full equality.