A U.S. senator runs a lackluster campaign for the Oval Office, makes military service in Vietnam the principal rationale for his candidacy and comes up short on Election Day. Addressing disappointed supporters after the electoral results are clear, he says:
"In an American election, there are no losers. Because whether or not our candidates are successful, the next morning, we all wake up as Americans. And that that is the greatest privilege and the most remarkable good fortune that can come to us on Earth."
John McCain in 2008? No, John Kerry in 2004.
What is it about defeat that brings out the best in bad political operations? Kerry gave the most distinguished speech of an undistinguished campaign in Boston two days after the election.
Likewise in regard to John McCain's concession speech in Phoenix, I've lost track of how many people have told me they would have voted for him if they had heard him speak so eloquently before the election.
In a sense, a concession speech is the easiest address to give in American politics. The vote tabulation is known. Expectations are low. And history provides a wealth of blueprints from which to draft a winning message in a losing situation.
Even Al Gore, who endured the uncertainties of the 2000 election and who frequently suffers from a tin ear, was able to pry a rhetorical victory from the jaws of defeat. "While we yet hold and do not yield our opposing beliefs, there is a higher duty than the one we owe to political party," he said five weeks after citizens went to the polls. "This is America, and we put country before party."
Who knows? A handful of differing votes in Florida, and a columnist today might by reminiscing about the inspiring elocution of a governor from Texas. Fate is a cruel thing.
All this talk every four years about unity and transcending partisan politics is well and good and nonsense. "Our Union must be preserved," Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln after the 1860 election. "Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism."
That didn't go so well. Before Lincoln was even inaugurated, seven states had seceded. More than a half million Americans would die over the next four years in the war that consumed the nation.
This is not intended to denigrate John McCain's post-election speech, which was indeed eloquent and inspiring. Here is the sentence that needs to be replayed over and over again: "I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president."
The "not my president" folly is probably as old as the Republic. But the notion that individuals can decide who is or is not their elected chief executive after the election has become woefully fashionable.
It became a popular bumper sticker in 1992: "Don't blame me I voted for Bush." It has been an article of faith among the Bush-hating left since 2000. And it holds far greater danger for Barack Obama, the first African-American elected to the nation's highest office, than to any of his predecessors.
Obama will be our president. He will lead our country at a time of great domestic and international uncertainty. For the good of us all, we should all wish him well.
The election of 2008, however, does not mean that we have entered a messianic age of unity and post-partisan fulfillment, any more than the elections of 2004, 2000 ... or 1860 did.
After the drubbing voters delivered to them in 2006 and this year, Republicans cannot afford to be an obstreperous party of rejection, a party whose reason for being is merely to oppose. But if the nation is craving a change in leadership and the possibility of hope, it also desperately needs the example of a loyal, principled opposition one that supports the president when he is deserving and challenges him respectfully when he is not.
Between the mirage of unity and the misfortune of civil war, there's ample room for the American people to express their political disagreements in tolerant, civilized ways. "Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans," John McCain said. Or was that John Kerry?