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I was very grateful for Mr. Romney’s prompt, succinct, and generous concession speech.
In defeat he offered only sincere congratulations to the President and a message of healing balm and unity to his supporters and the American people as a whole.
Mr. Romney offered neither an apologia for his candidacy nor an agenda for the nation. It was too late for either.
Rather, he did the only right thing for the loser to do in a constitutional republic in which the rule of law is taken seriously: He led his fellow-citizens in accepting, as definitive, the results of the election, and in bringing the current political contest to an unambiguous end:
“This election is over, but our principles endure. I believe that the principles upon which this nation was founded are the only sure guide to a resurgent economy and to renewed greatness.”
We should be grateful for this, as well.
President Obama’s victory speech was also very generous. It was surprisingly un-self-referential and it was devoid of any strident claims of a mandate for specific legislation or other measures.
The President’s remarks were reflective of a genuine love of this country and of a vision of social cohesion of a kind. But they were also revealing of Mr. Obama’s persistent and fundamental failure to understand what really makes America exceptional.
In a peroration delivered this election night with a fervor that recalled his national debut in 2004, Mr. Obama said:
“The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That’s the principle we were founded on.
“This country has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military in history, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our university, our culture are all the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores.
“What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth.
“The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.”
Social cohesion, diversity, and “love, charity, duty, and patriotism” may well be admirable attributes of America and Americans, but they are not what has made America “exceptional.” Any other people might well see themselves as “exceptional” for the same reasons. As Mr. Obama said in 2009, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
At the heart of what really has made America special, and ultimately great, is its commitment, hitherto, to the limiting of government. That’s the distinctive “principle we were founded on.”
It is a vision of people as self-determining ends in themselves, and not as mere tools for the achievement of government’s ends by other means.
It is a wise people that recurs to its own first principles. In their respective speeches tonight, closing the 2012 election campaign, Mr. Romney and President Obama finally opened a debate on America’s founding principles. And that is something else for which we can also be grateful.