Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
If Donald Trump refuses to give a concession speech, it will be one of the last norms that he breaks as President. Now that President-elect Joe Biden has won the 2020 election, Trump will need to decide what to do next.
While members of the Trump administration seem to be split between supporting the President’s attempt to fight the results in court and looking for new jobs, there is widespread agreement that he won’t deliver a concession speech.
The good thing is that it doesn’t ultimately matter. A formal concession after an election is not embedded in our Constitution – it is a norm. Historians tend to date the first public concession back to 1896, when Democrat William Jennings Bryan sent Republican William McKinley a telegram that said: “I hasten to extend my congratulations. We have submitted the issue to the American people and their will is law.”
Concessions tend to adhere to a basic formula. The loser congratulates the winner, calls for post-election unity and tells supporters that they should accept the results.
Illinois Democrat Adlai Stevenson brought the concession speech to television in 1952 after he took a drubbing at the polls and lost to Republican Dwight Eisenhower. In what is often considered among the best of the tradition, Stevenson told viewers, “That which unites us as American citizens is far greater than that which divides us as political parties. I urge you all to give to Gen. Eisenhower the support he will need to carry out the great task that lie before him. I pledge him mine. We vote as many. But we pray as one.”
After an extremely close election in 1960, Richard Nixon initially offered John Kennedy a half-hearted statement. “I want Senator Kennedy to know,” he said at 4 a.m. on election night, “and I want all of you to know, that if this trend does continue, and he does become our next president, then he will have my wholehearted support.” Nixon later followed through with a telegram that assured the President-elect, “You will have the united support of all Americans as you lead the nation.” Republicans, likely with Nixon’s tacit support, would go on to pursue recounts in states like Illinois, but those efforts failed to produce the results needed to change the outcome.
When Nixon won in 1972, it was Democratic Sen. George McGovern’s turn to concede. “I ask you not to despair of the political process of this country because that process has yielded too much valuable improvement in these past two years,” he said.
And when Sen. John McCain lost his presidential bid in 2008, he recognized President Barack Obama’s achievement. “In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance.” McCain also acknowledged the historic nature of Obama’s victory, called for unity, and said, “I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.”
One-term Presidents have also attempted to be gracious, however bitter they may have been about their loss. In 1932, Herbert Hoover sent Franklin Roosevelt a telegram that promised, “In the common purpose of all of us I shall dedicate myself to every possible effort.”
President Gerald Ford, who was hoarse after Election Day in 1976, asked his wife Betty to read a statement to the press as he stood next to her. “The president urges all Americans to join him in giving your united support to president-elect Carter as he prepares to assume his new responsibility.” She read from the telegram that Ford sent Carter in the morning and said, “Although there will continue to be disagreements over the best means to use in pursuing our goals, I want to assure you that you will have my complete and wholehearted support as you take the oath of office this January.”
When President Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980, he said, “I told him that I congratulated him for a fine victory. I look forward to working closely with him during the next few weeks. We’ll have a very fine transition period. I told him I wanted the best one in history.”
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush said, “I just called Governor [Bill] Clinton in Little Rock and offered my congratulations. He did run a strong campaign. I wish him well in the White House. And I want the country to know that our entire administration will work closely with his team to ensure the smooth transition of power. There is important work to be done, and America must always come first. So we will get behind this new President and wish him – wish him well.”
One of the most famous moments in many of our lifetimes took place in 2000. Al Gore called George W. Bush to concede, only to take it back when the election was too close to call. After a bitter post-election battle, which ended when the Supreme Court ruled that a Florida Supreme Court’s ruling requiring a statewide recount was unconstitutional, Gore took to the cameras to accept the loss.
Though many of his supporters were livid, Gore decided that his speech would be important to the nation’s healing. “I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country. Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road. Certainly, neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended, resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy….I accept the finality of this outcome…”
And, yes, in 2016 Hillary Clinton told the divided nation, “We must accept this result and then look forward to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”
In the face of defeat, it is unlikely that we will hear anything of the sort from President Trump – and certainly not a speech that tries to reach beyond partisanship and self interest.
Whether it was spewing toxic rhetoric on Twitter or withholding foreign aid to try to get a foreign country to conduct an investigation to hurt his political opponent, President Trump has continually flouted the norms of his position.
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Refusing to deliver a concession speech might just be yet another example in a long list of aberrations. It’s unlikely that a President who has made baseless claims of voter fraud and refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power would finally come around and try to bring the country together in the face of defeat. It’s a shame, given the deep divisions in this country.
While the concession is merely a courtesy, the Constitution does make one thing clear. On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will officially start his presidency. Whatever Trump says, or refuses to say, simply doesn’t matter. When the clock strikes noon, Trump will return to being a civilian just like the rest of us.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the time that marks the end of a presidency. It is at noon, on January 20, not midnight.