12/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When Your Best Speech is Your Concession, What's Wrong?

John McCain's concession speech was by far his best of the campaign. He was, convincing, generous, and passionate. It brought to mind Hillary Clinton's concession speech last summer, which was also widely heralded as her best.

What is it with these politicians that the can only give a good speech after they have lost?

American politician note-to-self: Note to American politicians: ask yourself if your best speech will be your concession. If the answer is yes, then you have a problem.

That might sound funny, but I am serious. If the only time you can actually speak from your heart is when you have lost, then why are you running? What good are you doing anyone, including yourself?

"This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs," McCain proclaimed. Why hadn't he said this during the campaign? Obama did the equivalent, over and over, when he routinely talked about McCain being a genuine war hero who should be recognized for his sacrifice.

After acknowledging the historic moment in race relations, McCain continued, "Whatever our differences, [Obama and I] are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that." This after a campaign in which the central talking point of McCain's campaign became Obama's alleged "association" with sixties radical Bill Ayers.

One could hardly miss the fact that in order to be gracious in defeat, McCain had to contradict much of his own campaign. Clinton's concession speech left her in the same dilemma: in order to be gracious in defeat, she had to contradict much of what she had said over the preceding months.

If Obama had lost either the nomination or the general election, he could have given a gracious concession speech without contradicting anything he had said during the campaign. One might counter by arguing that it is easy to be principled when you are the front runner. But Barack Obama entered this race not as a frontrunner but a long shot. In fact, much of Obama's extraordinary rise to prominence was rooted in his self-evident commitment to politics that are principled in this sense. A sizable chunk of the American electorate responded to that in a powerful way.

This would be a good measure with which to distinguish "principled" politics from "unprincipled": a principled politician can concede graciously with having to take back his or her campaign.

John McCain provides us with a perfect example. If he had really believed that Barack Obama was advised by "domestic terrorists," he could not have given the concession speech that he did. If he really believed that, his concession speech would have been a dire warning to the country of the grave danger it faced. Instead, he told us that the only association Obama had that mattered was that he was American.

This is the issue the media swings at but misses with all the talk of "negative campaigning" and "attack ads." Principled and unprincipled attacks get lumped together in a absurd measure of "going negative" that suggests a good candidate never criticizes his or her opponent. Instead of "negative campaigning" we need to talk about unprincipled politicians.

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