Political Animal


November 06, 2012 6:18 PM Will Tonight’s Losing Candidate Be Gracious or Grudging?

By Paul Glastris

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 is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.


  • c u n d gulag on November 06, 2012 6:49 PM:

    When, if, President Obama wins, Mitt will be his usual graceless, entitled, self - "How dare that man beat me?"

    I will be shocked if Mitt concedes tonight.

    Even if the election is a blow-out.

    It's not in him.
    He simply will not, can not, believe that the country didn't choose him to be the President.
    He has armies of lawyers ready, willingm abd able, to contest the election. And Mitt NEVER lets paid asset's go before he squeezes every last penny out of them.

  • Dude on November 06, 2012 6:52 PM:

    "n a democracy, winners can govern only with the consent of the losers. Without that consent, there is gridlock at best"

    It's a shame that someone forgot to tell Sen McConnell et al in 2008, that their candidate conceded, because they sure as hell never consented.

  • JR on November 06, 2012 7:03 PM:

    If Obama loses, I expect we'll hear one of the most gracious concession speeches ever. ThinkProgress is already reporting that he already has two speeches written.

    On the other hand, unless Obama wins by a landslide, I'd be surprised if Romney conceded this evening. WaPo is reporting that he has yet to write one. I wouldn't be surprised if he's still campaigning after all the polls have closed, believing, like any CEO, that he change people's minds.

  • JoeW on November 06, 2012 7:07 PM:

    What the candidates do is not as important as how the party's react. We know from history, that the Dems will work with whoever wins. We also know the repubs will not, but demand everyone work with them should they win.

  • Daniel Kim on November 06, 2012 8:12 PM:

    I was very surprised in 2008 with McCain's speech. I was expecting . . . I don't know what. I was expecting a 'fight to the last man' kind of speech, and the concession was startlingly gracious and entirely patriotic. I did not think he had it in him, and I was ashamed of myself for having thought him incapable of humility.

    I hope that I am similarly mistaken about Romney. This has been a bitterly-fought election, after a terrible four years. Congressional obstruction, poisonous media, lies and dirty tricks have soured my views.

    Still, our poor, battered nation has seen worse. I can only hope that Americans will know to recall these words:

    "Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union . . ."

  • Fernando Ortiz Jr. on November 08, 2012 10:33 AM:

    Thanks for contributing to such a wonderful and fascinating conversation on "Talk of the Nation." I really appreciated your intelligent insights and humor.