Will Tonight’s Losing Candidate Be Gracious or Grudging?

On NPR’s Talk of the Nation this afternoon, host Neil Conan was asking former Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson and me about the role of concession speeches in American politics. As it happens, neither of us has ever been involved in writing one, but I was able to offer a few thoughts largely based on a very good recent book on the subject, Almost President, by Scott Farris. I then asked Scott to pen a few thoughts about the history of concession speeches and the tone he thinks tonight’s loser will, or at least ought, to set. Here’s what he sent:

The most important speech of the presidential campaign will be given late tonight (or early tomorrow) but news anchors will give it scant attention. That speech is the loser’s concession speech, often dismissed as a hodge-podge of pabulum and cliches, but which is an important ritual that helps ensure our democracy works.

Commentators will be anxious only that the speech be over and done with so that the winning candidate can emerge to give his victory speech. But if we spend a moment to think about it, we realize why the winning candidate cannot speak first; it is because until the loser concedes, the election isn’t over.

The networks and the wire services can project all they like, but it is the losing candidate who has the power at that moment to decide whether to fight on or to concede. By conceding, the loser validates the result of the election in a way that is more definitive than the vote of the Electoral College. Like a military surrender, it is a call by the candidate to his troops to lay down their arms and return to normal life, and it precludes future challenges to the result.

Given that most concession speeches include a call for national unity, the concession speech is also the moment when the nation begins to heal after a typically bitter and partisan campaign.

Think back to 2008, when shouts of “traitor,” “terrorist” and even “kill him!” were leveled at Barack Obama by attendees at Republican rallies. Yet, within a week of President Obama’s victory, surveys found three-quarters of Americans held a favorable view of the president-elect.

Much of that was due to Obama’s own performance, but credit should also be given to Senator John McCain, who gave an especially gracious concession and hushed the crowd when they booed Obama’s name, and then pointedly referred to Obama as “my president.”

Such graciousness has a long tradition. In another particularly gracious concession given by Vice President Al Gore during the unusual circumstances of 2000, Gore quoted Stephen Douglas, who had proclaimed after losing to his life-long rival, Abraham Lincoln, “Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism.”

Not every loser has been quite so gracious. Barry Goldwater, for example, refused to concede to Lyndon Johnson in 1964 until the morning after the election, although the results had been clear a dozen hours before.

Either Obama or Mitt Romney seems more likely to adopt a tone similar to that used by McCain or Gore rather than Goldwater, and we should be grateful when they do, whatever our feelings about the result.

For in a democracy, winners can govern only with the consent of the losers. Without that consent, there is gridlock at best and chaos and violence at worst. We see violence every year in nations around the globe when the losing candidate refuses to accept the result of an election.

We almost never see that violence in the United States and we should pray we never do. One reason we don’t is the tone set by the concession speech, which is why it is worthy of our attention, regardless of the hour it occurs

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.