There was a debate last night. For the last time in this election cycle, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton made their case to America. At times, they engaged in a fairly substantive discussion. An early question about abortion allowed each to establish their, respectively, pro-choice and pro-life bonafides. I don’t think either of them won any voters over on that most polarizing of issues, but both defended their positions with some passion. Trump did, I think, badly misrepresent the pro-choice position, but it’s likely that my pro-life friends would say the same about Secretary Clinton.
I wouldn’t say, up to that point, that Donald Trump did well. He spoke forcefully enough. But he’s woefully ill-informed about the issues, and is much given to strong declarative statements on policy that turn out to be entirely and completely untrue. And I wish I could say that Hillary Clinton confined her comments to substantive discussions of policy, but Trump has made too many bizarre pronouncements on the campaign trail to really ignore. She spent much of the debate plucking that low-hanging fruit. That works tactically for her, as he’s sufficiently thin-skinned that he can’t help but respond to what he perceives as insults, finally blurting out “what a nasty woman.” (The nimbleness of the Clinton campaign is evidenced by the fact that, within minutes, they had purchased the web domain nastywomengetshitdone.com, which now redirects to the Clinton For President website).
But then came the defining moment of the debate, the headline in every paper in America this morning. Here’s the exchange. I’m going to quote it at length, because it’s so important:
Wallace: Mr. Trump, I want to ask you about one last question in this topic. You’ve been warning at rallies recently that this election is rigged and that Hillary Clinton is in the process of trying to steal it from you. Your running mate Governor Pence pledged on Sunday that he and you, his words, will absolutely accept the result of this election. Today your daughter Ivanka said the same thing. I want to ask you here on the stage tonight, do you make the same commitment that you’ll absolutely accept the result of the election.
Trump: I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now, I’ll look at it at the time. What I’ve seen, what I’ve seen, is so bad. First of all, the media is so dishonest and so corrupt and the pile on is so amazing. “The New York Times” actually wrote an article about it, but they don’t even care. It is so dishonest, and they have poisoned the minds of the voters. But unfortunately for them, I think the voters are seeing through it. I think they’re going to see through it, we’ll find out on November 8th, but I think they’re going to see through it. If you look —
Wallace: But, but —
Trump: Excuse me, Chris. If you look at your voter rolls, you will see millions of people that are registered to vote. Millions. This isn’t coming from me. This is coming from Pew report and other places. Millions of people that are registered to vote that shouldn’t be registered to vote. So let me just give you one other thing. I talk about the corrupt media. I talk about the millions of people. I’ll tell you one other thing. She shouldn’t be allowed to run. It’s — She’s guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run, and just in that respect I say it’s rigged because she should never —
Wallace: But, but —
Trump: Chris. She should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with e-mails and so many other things.
Wallace: But, sir, there is a tradition in this country, in fact, one of the prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power and no matter how hard fought a campaign is that at the end of the campaign, that the loser concedes to the winner. Not saying you’re necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?
Trump: What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?
Clinton: Well, Chris, let me respond to that, because that’s horrifying.
“I’ll keep you in suspense.” “That’s horrifying.”
In 1800, John Adams lost the Presidency to Thomas Jefferson. It was a nasty, contentious election, and although the two men would eventually reconcile, at the time Adams was furious. But when the votes were counted, he graciously conceded defeat, and stepped down. That precedent for the peaceful transfer of power has become one of the great strengths of American democracy. When Presidential candidates lose an election, they concede, completely and without reservation. They pledge their support for the new President.
Two examples, one from each party. In 1960, the Presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was exceedingly close. Kennedy won by a little over 100,000 votes nationwide: 49.72% to 49.55%. Kennedy did win the electoral college 303-219.
But the vote totals were questionable, Kennedy’s victory tainted. In Illinois, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was widely perceived as corrupt (because he was), and the Daley political machine guilty of voter fraud, which was, uh, not unimaginable. (“I see no reason to deprive a loyal, life-long Democrat of his voting franchise merely because he has passed on to a better world,” a Daley flunky is supposed to have said). And Texas politics were similarly colorful. And Kennedy’s running mate was “Landslide” Lyndon Johnson, whose place in the Senate was due to widely suspected chicanery, as he defeated former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson by 87 votes in 1948.
My father-in-law, a lifelong Republican, was convinced that Kennedy’s victory was illegitimate. He believed that Kennedy won both Texas and Illinois due to voter fraud, and that both states should have gone to Nixon, which would have given him exactly 270 electoral votes, enough for the win. And Nixon’s advisors wanted him to contest the election. Make a fuss. Insist on a full investigation, including recounts in both states. Nixon refused. He said “I want Senator Kennedy to know he has my wholehearted support.” It had been a bitterly contested election, and Nixon would not allow divisiveness to continue.
In that moment, Richard Nixon proved himself a patriot. He put the good of the nation ahead of his own personal ambitions. And, of course, he was eventually elected President, and we all know how that turned out. Still, he deserves full credit for his 1960 concession. He upheld the American democratic tradition. If you lose, you step down.
Next example: 2000. Al Gore and George W. Bush engaged in one of the closest elections in American history. Gore won the popular vote, 50, 999, 879 to 50, 456, 002. The deciding state was Florida, and the margins were razor thin. Initially, it appeared that Bush had won Florida by 537 votes; that total was close enough to trigger a mandatory recount according to Florida law. The exact mechanics of the recount was extensively litigated. Finally, the US Supreme Court stepped in, and by a 5-4 margin, Bush was declared the winner.
Again, Gore might have contested it in the court of public opinion. He did not. Al Gore was a patriot. Citing “the strength of American democracy” as his guide, he conceded the election.
I could discuss other examples. Democrat Samuel Tilden, in 1876, won the popular vote by a substantial margin. But electoral votes were disputed for three states–Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina. A commission was appointed to resolve the issue, and a deal was struck, ending Reconstruction in exchange for the election of Rutherford Hayes, by one electoral vote. And Tilden was a patriot. Tilden conceded defeat.
The time and energy and money and, above all, emotional investment required to run for President of the United States must be far above anything most of us ever go through. (Probably the one thing we might compare it to is pregnancy–that level of total commitment). Therefore the ultimate test of the strength of our democracy comes when the election is over, when we peacefully transfer power to the new President. Our losing candidates go into the process aware of our traditions, hoping to win, aware that they might lose, aware as well of the absolute necessity of a graceful concession.
That’s why the post-debate commentary last night was so strongly stated and so unanimous. “I’ll keep you in suspense?” Not in America. Donald Trump’s refusal to state unequivocally that he will concede defeat if he loses was the main topic every commentator addressed. Steve Schmidt (John McCain’s campaign manager) condemned it. Nicolle Wallace, who worked with Schmidt, agreed with Hillary Clinton: his comments were “horrifying.” And Hugh Hewitt (conservative commentator) called Trump’s comments “disqualifying.”
And Hewitt’s right. Wallace’s question went right to the heart of who we are as a democracy. Donald Trump was faced with the ultimate test of his patriotism. And he failed. Donald Trump has disqualified himself to serve as President of the United States. He put his ego over his country. He has proven himself insufficiently patriotic.