Amid the triumphant acclamation and the reluctant resignation of the two presidential candidates’ early morning speeches was the hint that politics is about to take a strange turn. Mitt Romney’s concession address was suitably gracious and, above dissenting heckles from his disappointed party workers, he included this veiled job application: “Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work, and we citizens also have to rise to the occasion.”
Within half an hour President Barack Obama responded in kind. “I just spoke with Governor Romney and I congratulated him and Paul Ryan on a hard-fought campaign,” he said. “In the weeks ahead, I also look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.”
What do the two men have in mind? The role of defeated presidential candidate is a hard one to endure. America does not like losers, and those who fail to win the world’s most important office are given short shrift. Often they become bywords for has-beens and no-hopers, tacitly blamed for letting their ambitions run ahead of reality. George McGovern was a courageous man, a bomber pilot in World War Two who knew war from the inside and could not bear to see America’s young men sacrificed in a dubious cause. His reward after losing the 1972 race was ignominy and derision. The same was true of another war hero and failed presidential candidate, Bob Dole, in 1996, who became a spokesman for Viagra.
In 1988, Michael Dukakis’s failure to become president became the butt of gags in late-night comedians’ monologues. Al Gore, who won the popular vote, won Florida if the votes had been counted, and was only kept out of the White House in 2000 by an extraordinary decision of the Supreme Court that to this day cannot be read by the American people they claim to serve, fared even worse. After growing a beard, shedding his wife, Tipper, and putting on 100 pounds, he has floundered around, trying to find a role that befits a two-term vice president. Little wonder that Romney, as he takes off the motley, does not wish to join that sorry line of tragedians.
On the stump, Romney used to joke that he fully understands the unemployed because he has been unemployed for five years, since he stood down as the one-term governor of Massachusetts in 2007. More seriously, what does a man with a vast fortune, who doesn’t need to work, do after two failed runs at the presidency? Romney is 65 and in good shape. His religion and his upbringing suggest he should do something in the public good. But what? We have yet to discover what Obama said to Romney – and indeed to Paul Ryan – in the early hours of Nov. 7, but it is clear that there was something more than the usual niceties. There was none of the petulance on display in the snarling between Gore and George W. Bush that elicited the revealing reprimand from Gore, when he called to say he may have conceded too soon, “There’s no need to get snippy about it.” It seems from Obama’s victory speech that he reached out there and then to his old adversaries and in doing so set the tone for his second term.