‘That’s what politics can be’ – US winners and losers speak

President Obama cut through the campaign spin in delivering his acceptance speech in Chicago: EPA/Tannen Maury

One of the standout characteristics of the 2012 campaign was the candidates’ conspiracy of tedium.

Barack Obama’s research had shown him that voters are deeply suspicious of his rhetorical brilliance (even while they enjoy it). His Republican challenger Mitt Romney generally prefers to keep things straight and narrow, you suspect, so a low-calorie campaign was always going to play to his instincts.

But the acceptance and concession speeches marked the moment when these strictures fell away.

Obama gave a 21-minute speech that brought his audience to silence, then to bursts of unforced applause — but perhaps none of those turns of unforgettable mastery he used to deliver so regularly. The most impressive section was the walk-on, where he had the sense to let his audience dance to Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” for a good two minutes before he grabbed their attention.

Romney spoke for less than five minutes, half of it acknowledging the people around him. The last half, though, was a positive, engaging account of Romney’s political philosophy – he is clearly a more impressive figure than his campaign allowed him to be.

A few initial observations point to the way the candidates were both trying to achieve something different from all their in-campaign rhetoric.

Taking a bit of time to go back over the transcript shows how Obama used unmistakable echoes of other great rhetoric through the sections of his speech. His universal anecdotes were back in force, the odes to hope, Martin Luther King’s bumpy road to the Promised Land, even The Battle Hymn of the Republic gets an airing:

I have seen this spirit at work in America. I’ve seen it in the family business whose owners would rather cut their own pay than lay off their neighbours and in the workers who would rather cut back their hours than see a friend lose a job. I’ve seen it in the soldiers who re-enlist after losing a limb and in those Seals who charged up the stairs into darkness and danger because they knew there was a buddy behind them watching their back. (Cheers, applause.) I’ve seen it on the shores of New Jersey and New York, where leaders from every party and level of government have swept aside their differences to help a community rebuild from the wreckage of a terrible storm. (Cheers, applause.)

I don’t see how we can share Obama’s stated faith “that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come”. I certainly do not share his faith in the USA as a broker for peace while its drones kill ever-larger numbers in Central Asia – Obama, you will recall, is the first-ever Nobel Peace Prize winner to dedicate his acceptance speech to a defence of warfare and warriors. But we can share his relief that the campaign is finally over, hoping the months ahead offer Washington a new chance to loosen the partisan gridlock on government.

Romney also campaigned for bringing Washington’s parties together. His concession speech was at its most impressive when he bequeathed that brokering role to the entire country:

The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work. And we citizens also have to rise to the occasion.

We look to our teachers and professors, we count on you not just to teach, but to inspire our children with a passion for learning and discovery. We look to our pastors and priests and rabbis and counsellors of all kinds to testify of the enduring principles upon which our society is built: honesty, charity, integrity and family.

We look to our parents, for in the final analysis everything depends on the success of our homes. We look to job creators of all kinds. We’re counting on you to invest, to hire, to step forward. And we look to Democrats and Republicans in government at all levels to put the people before the politics.

Mitt Romney conceded the election in a speech with class. EPA/CJ Gunther

Romney asserted his pride in the values he had taken to the electorate, but he was extremely warm and generous towards the victor and his campaign. Romney’s version of the (now-traditional) loser’s call for America to unite behind the winner was more credible than most.

Obama, for his part, was courteous towards the defeated campaign, then went on to suggest that he will try to incorporate Romney into government decision-making in the coming weeks.

Do we read life imitating art imitating life here? In the final series of The West Wing, the newly elected president Matt Santos (a character loosely based on Obama, before he really became Obama) offers the Secretary of State post to Arnold Vinick, the Republican candidate he has just defeated. And now Hillary Clinton is stepping down…

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