Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney stood confidently behind the podium, thanked his dutiful wife and campaign volunteers, and proceeded to turn reality squarely on its head.
“There have been three races so far—I’ve gotten two silvers and one gold,” he began, shortly after flipping away his notecards and announcing his intention to speak from the heart. At this point he paused a beat, waited for the applause to subside, and added, eyebrows raised: “Thank you, Wyoming.”
That was the scene last Tuesday in Bedford, New Hampshire. As much of the political world obsessed over the at times inevitable, unlikely, impossible, and highly probable election of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Romney turned in a first-class demonstration of why he is the most qualified candidate to coach a T-ball team.
Romney’s less-than-impressive second-place finish to another prematurely embalmed candidate was a big story, but losing the tiny state next door to the same guy who won there eight years ago is hardly a path to ruin. Such reflection would all come in due time. Now it was time for a political tradition as hallowed as race-baiting in the South Carolina primary and kissing babies at state fairs: the concession speech.
As a rule, concession speeches follow a simple formula. After thanking the assembled supporters and family members, the governor/senator/congressman/consumer advocate will heap praise upon the good people of the state who welcomed him into their homes and then summarily spit him back out. At this point, a pint-sized granddaughter may appear next to the candidate and clasp his hand, depending on the magnitude of the defeat, and the existence of such a grandchild.
Inevitably, many of the assembled supporters will boo when the name of the victor is first mentioned, and just as inevitably, the candidate will feign dismay, let out a small smirk, and motion with both hands that there is no room for booing—not in this room, because we all have so much to be proud of and so much work left to do.
This is when things start to get interesting. The combustible mix of sleep deprivation, caffeine, and the sinking feeling of having just wasted multiple months and hundreds of thousands of dollars on a letter of rejection effects different reactions on different people. Howard Dean is only the most recent and obvious example.
In the long history of republican government, the un-artful concession has taken many forms. Aaron Burr, for example, eschewed the traditional congratulatory format and instead chose to shoot the man responsible for his defeat, Alexander Hamilton. Al Gore, whose impassioned defense of checks and balances in December of 2000 ranks among the genre’s finest moments, also submitted one of its worst one month earlier when he first congratulated his opponent and then retracted that statement only hours later—the political equivalent of reneging on a pinky swear.
Men, women, children, pundits—no one is safe when the words of defeat cut through the air. They can be teary affairs. Just last year, then–Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s 18-point loss to Bob Casey was marred by the image of his youngest daughter in tears at the side of the podium. Two years earlier, John Kerry made it rain in Boston before calling (unsuccessfully) for unity. Barack Obama thankfully kept his eyelids dry when addressing Granite State supporters last week, but the always objective Chris Matthews, watching from NBC’s studios, was not so lucky, as he hyperbolically announced: “It was the best speech I’ve ever heard…I’m tearing up.” Politicians may share baseball players’ fascination with steroids, but when it comes to crying, they’re in a league of their own.
In many cases, it’s a goodbye, a last chance to see the candidates whom we’ve seen grow before our eyes before we send them off to sea on an ice floe—Chris Dodd and Joe Biden in Iowa, for example, or Bob Dole in 1996.
And yet, through it all, the whole concept seems cruel and ritualistic: Not only do we force our second choices to actually abide by the election results, but we make them give a speech about it to boot. There is no easy solution to the concession crisis, but for entertainment’s sake, something must be done to break the trend. Anyone familiar with professional football understands that the sight of a sunglass-wearing star wide receiver blaming the media after a playoff loss is far more satisfying than having to sit through 20 minutes of an unsuccessful stump speech. Or perhaps the losing candidate should be forced to leave the state in shame, Real World–style, as dozens of cameras capture his final moments at headquarters.
The concession, through recounts and duels, primary failures and general election catastrophes, has remained a bedrock of democracy. But to use the noun of choice of the 2008 election, maybe a little change wouldn’t be such a bad thing.