Bill Clinton created his Sister Souljah moment. Mitt Romney keeps ducking his. This says something disturbing about the current political environment. It says something even more disturbing about the soon-to-be Republican nominee.
My point here is not Clinton-good/Romney-bad. Both men were acting in what they perceived to be their political self-interest — a tendency, it turns out, common among politicians.
For Clinton, rebuking the rap singer for comments suggesting that blacks should “kill white people” was less courageous than calculated.
It was June 1992, with the general election looming and polls showing the Democrat running third against George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot. Clinton chose the moment — Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Rainbow Coalition conference, to which Sister Souljah had been invited — to stage his declaration of independence.
Romney’s calculus has been consistently the opposite: that the risk of alienating powerful party figures or constituencies exceeds the benefit of repositioning himself, if not in the reasonable center, then closer to it. His Sister Souljah deficit underscores both the extreme nature of the current Republican Party and Romney’s continuing tenuous position within it.
The first ducked moment came in March, after conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute.”
Romney’s response was decidedly, disappointingly mild. “It’s not the language I would have used,” he said, leaving open the question of what words, exactly, the candidate considered appropriate. Loose woman? Harlot?
With the light at the end of the primary tunnel, Romney could have used the opportunity to try to reassure female voters and narrow the gender gap with President Obama.
Instead, he flinched from calling out a powerful conservative. Limbaugh was too scary to take on.
As, it would seem, are the party’s homophobic social conservatives, which brings us to the messy episode of the hiring and hasty departure of foreign policy spokesman Richard Grenell.
As bizarre as it feels to be saying this in 2012, Romney deserves credit for hiring someone who is openly gay. This ought to be a no-brainer, except that we are talking about the Republican Party, which is more comfortable with gay supporters in the closet than out.
According to the New York Times, when Grenell, at the end of the interviewing process, volunteered to Romney aides that he is gay, senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom waved him off. “It’s not an issue for us,” Fehrnstrom said.
Except that it clearly is an issue for others in the party. “Romney picks out & loud gay as a spokesman,” tweeted Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association. “If personnel is policy, his message to the pro-family community: drop dead.” Conservative activist Gary Bauer termed the hiring an “unforced error” because Grenell “has been an outspoken advocate of redefining normal marriage.”
This raises the question: Given the predictable, disgusting backlash to Grenell’s hiring, how could the Romney campaign have no plan to deal with it other than to shove Grenell into the background — the closet? — until the furor died down?
Indeed, for all of his posturing about managerial expertise, Romney flubbed his due diligence on Grenell, who had to insta-scrub his Twitter account of offensive comments about women’s appearance. Mr. Real Economy, does your team vet new hires?
A more confident candidate, secure in his place within the party, would have had the guts — not to mention the decency — to tell the social conservatives to cut it out. He could have repeated what Fehrnstrom told Grenell — that sexual orientation was a non-issue — and that even Republicans could disagree about same-sex marriage.
Instead, Romney said . . . nothing. His campaign issued a bland statement of support that did not mention the gay elephant in the room. And then it told Grenell to keep quiet.
When he decided to resign instead, at least six top aides called Grenell to persuade him to stay on, the Times reported. But not, apparently, the candidate himself.
Which left Fischer crowing, “It’s a huge win for us in regard to Mitt Romney. Because Mitt Romney has been forced to say, ‘Look, I overstepped my bounds here.’ ”
Somewhere, Sister Souljah is smiling. Because Romney is doubly hobbled, by the extremeness of his party and the timidity of his own character.