For 35 days following the Nov. 7 election, Al Gore was taunted by Republican officeholders and operatives and shamed by “high-minded” editorial writers to throw in the towel—to concede, for the good of the country, the election to George W. Bush and allow his team to proceed with an orderly transition of power. Given the unprecedented closeness of the election and widespread reports of flawed ballot designs, confused voters and uncounted votes (most suggesting he was the intended choice of a plurality of Florida voters), Gore was right to turn a deaf ear to the nasty chants of “Sore Loserman” and pursue the manual recount provided for in Florida statutes.
But once the U.S. Supreme Court—in the narrowest, most bitterly contested and transparently ideological of decisions—put a definitive end to the manual recount in Florida and handed the presidency to Bush, Gore had no choice but to deliver his concession speech. Wednesday night, not earlier, was the appropriate time to follow the honorable and constructive tradition in American politics whereby the losing candidate publicly accepts the outcome of the election and, for the good of the country (and possibly also for the sake of his own political future), urges his supporters to do likewise.
That tradition had its genesis in the election of 1800, whose bicentennial we celebrate this year. In that election, candidates Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, both Democratic-Republicans, received the same number of electoral votes, throwing the presidential election into the House of Representatives.
Federalist Alexander Hamilton played an immensely constructive role in preventing his party from denying the presidency to Jefferson, his political adversary, and losing Federalist candidate John Adams, the incumbent president, accepted the outcome of the election and helped facilitate the first peaceful transfer of power following a democratic election.
Several months after the election, Adams wrote Jefferson: “This part of the Union is in a state of perfect tranquility, and I see nothing to obscure your prospect of a quiet and prosperous administration, which I heartily wish you.”
The important precedent established in 1800—acceptance of the legitimacy of the political opposition—has been the backbone of our constitutional democracy ever since.
Losing candidates naturally have found it easier to be magnanimous in the ritual of concession when the outcome is decisive—when, as they so often say, “the people have spoken” loudly and clearly. President Carter used a humor-tinged version of that concession bromide when he acknowledged his 1980 defeat to Ronald Reagan: “The people of the United States have made their choice and, of course, I accept their decision—but not with the same enthusiasm that I accepted the decision four years ago.”
But falling short of victory by the slimmest of margins has not prevented losing candidates from following the tradition of publicly conceding defeat and calling on the nation to unite behind the new president.
In a telegram to Sen. John F. Kennedy following the 1960 election, Vice President Richard Nixon said: “I want to repeat through this wire the congratulations and best wishes I extended to you on television last night. I know that you will have the united support of all Americans as you lead the nation in the cause of peace and freedom in the next four years.”
Having lost his voice in the last days of the 1976 campaign, President Gerald Ford asked his wife to read the telegram he sent to Jimmy Carter: “It is apparent now that you have won our long and intense struggle for the presidency. I congratulate you on your victory. As one who has been honored to serve the people of this great land, both in Congress and as president, I believe that we must now put the divisions of the campaign behind us and unite the country once again in the common pursuit of peace and prosperity. Although there will continue to be disagreements over the best means to use in pursuing our goals, I want to assure you that you will have my complete and wholehearted support as you take the oath of office this January.”
Gore was right to follow the spirit of that tradition of public concession Wednesday night—acknowledging the certain outcome of the vote by the Electoral College on Dec. 18, conceding the election to his opponent, and urging the nation to unite behind the new president.
He also was right not to disguise his disagreement with the U.S. Supreme Court decision that pre-empted a manual recount of the Florida vote.
But in the end, Vice President Gore chose to take the high road—not to point to the obvious flaws in the election system and the intense feeling among his supporters that the 2000 outcome was unfair—but instead to wish his victorious adversary Godspeed and to say that it was time for him to go.