11/06/2012 09:31 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2013

Mitt Romney's Opportunity to Lead

Most polls suggest that, in a few hours, President Barack Obama will be re-elected to serve a second term. If that happens, the media that have been following Mr. Romney will turn their attention back to covering the White House and Romney's voice will no longer have the reach or impact it has had during the campaign. That said, even if he is defeated, Mr. Romney will have one key moment to demonstrate leadership -- his concession speech. In those final moments of his campaign, Mr. Romney will be able to help heal the deep erosion public trust in our president that his party has created, and help promote a renewed effort to find common ground.

Candidates do and should differ over issues. Running on policy differences is what candidates are supposed to do. The Republican Party, however and its proponents have created a fictional President Obama -- a foreign born Muslim socialist who hates the United States. Because of the efforts of many on the right, false claims such as these have gained tremendous traction. According to a Gallup poll conducted in April of 2011, 43 percent of Republicans said that President Obama was born in another country. In July of 2012, a Pew poll showed that 30 percent of Republicans believed Obama was a Muslim. And going back as far as 2010, 55 percent respondents to a Democracy Corps poll agreed that Obama was a socialist. Romney has reinforced these untruths, saying that Obama has a "very strange, and in some respects foreign to the American experience type of philosophy." And this exercise has taken attention away from reasoned debate over serious policy issues, and deprived the American public of the chance to engage a reality-based understanding of the differences between the two candidates.

When Obama took office, he made it clear that he intended to work on behalf of all Americans, not just those who had voted for him. That pledge should have heartened Republicans, and encouraged them to press for real dialogue and a greater hearing for their ideas. Mr. Romney's supporters will fare better if President Obama is committed to working on their behalf and listening to their concerns and ideas. However, the lies and misinformation about Obama currently circulating among Romney supporters make it extremely unlikely that they will be able to hold Obama to the commitment he made when he was first elected, because they're simply too angry and too full of mistrust to work collaboratively.

This week, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey showed exemplary non-partisan leadership. No one likes hurricane destruction. Those in control of government resources wishing to work together to assist victims of natural disasters can probably agree on a fair amount. And that's exactly what Christie and Obama did, to the benefit of many devastated by Sandy. This act of collaboration did not mean that the two men suddenly agreed on most issues or policies, or that Christie was withdrawing his support from Mr. Romney. Nonetheless, this essential act of leadership and professionalism by Governor Christie led to a vehement backlash against him from the right. This response indicates how resistant the right is to working with Obama and Democrats even on the most basic issues. This inability is to the detriment of Republicans, who could benefit if their leaders were able to collaborate as Christie did, and to all citizens of what is now an extremely divided union. As long as the president is viewed as a caricature, and a composite bogeyman, it's likely that this breakdown in our political fabric will continue.

If he concedes tonight, Romney has the opportunity to steer his supporters back to a more reasoned view of President Obama, and to model a productive way to engage in political discourse. Before he steps away from the podium, he will have the opportunity say to his supporters: "I have disagreed with the president on a host of issues, and I believe that my vision for America is the better one. However, I can say that the president is a devoted American who has taken this endeavor seriously, and who is dedicated to the American people and our political enterprise. While elections serve to highlight the things that divide us, I urge people of all political persuasions to look forward to the things we can accomplish by working together, and I pledge to work with him in whatever capacity I can for the benefit of the country." If the reaction to Governor Christie is any indication, Romney's party will not thank him for it. But in the long run, a call for collaboration with the president might help to frame a new discussion, one that could benefit Romney's supporters as well as his detractors. In his last address as a presidential candidate this year, Mr. Romney has the opportunity to lead by example and to make our politics better and more honorable. I hope he seizes it.