There’s been a lot of discussion lately about presidential concession speeches.
The first public presidential concession was in November, 1896, when Democrat William Jennings Bryan sent a congratulatory telegram to his Republican opponent, William McKinley, after losing the presidential election. That courtesy carried forward through the ages.
Presidential candidates have consistently set aside personal disappointment in order to preserve democracy. Senator John McCain’s 2008 concession speech is legendary and has garnered 15 million views on YouTube. McCain commended Barack Obama for making history as the first African-American President and urged the country to come together as fellow Americans. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 concession speech was similarly respectful and inclusive. She congratulated Donald Trump and offered to work with him on behalf of the nation. Both McCain and Clinton, like other defeated presidential candidates before them, expressed pride in and gratitude for the democratic process.
Traditionally, an effective presidential concession speech acknowledges the candidate’s loss and congratulates the victor, calls for unity under new leadership, expresses appreciation for democracy, and pledges personal ongoing commitment to the values and policies of the defeated party. No candidate in modern history has refused to give a concession speech.
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While many Americans view President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede the 2020 presidential election as a resentful temper tantrum of sorts, the President does not have to concede. There is no legal or constitutional requirement stating the defeated candidate in a presidential election must concede. However, tradition holds that the losing candidate publicly acknowledge defeat.
How graciously a political candidate wins or loses says a lot about his/her character. A candidate who admits defeat and pledges to support the victor, as McCain, Clinton, and so many other candidates have done, displays character, dignity, and dedication to American democracy. Donald Trump’s refusal to concede the election to President-elect Joe Biden speaks volumes about Trump’s character and his disregard for democracy. Trump’s inability to acknowledge and congratulate Kamala Harris for making history as the first woman and first woman of color to hold the office of Vice President reveals an unattractive pettiness. Failing to abide by the will of the people and concede this election is a missed opportunity for Donald Trump to enhance and preserve his legacy.
In his concession telegram of 1896, William Jennings Bryan wrote to William McKinley, “We have submitted the issue to the American people, and their will is law.” Apparently, Trump and the GOP do not comprehend this. It is highly unlikely Donald Trump will concede.
He doesn’t have to. Conceding is not law. It’s presidential etiquette. It’s common sense. It’s tradition. It’s democracy.