Politics: Where decency is a weakness

Today’s story in the Washington Post about the fading tradition of a concession phone call after a tough-fought campaign reveals the central problem with politics: Decency is a sign of weakness.

A refusal to make nice is more notable after a primary than it is following a general election. The day after winning the party’s nod, candidates need to unite their party behind them. Any signs of lingering rifts could threaten to undercut their standing heading into the general election and make them look weak.

It’s not like the conversations that do happen mean all that much. As Mark Leibovich wrote in the New York Times in 2010, they are often superficial exchanges. But not going though the motions — especially in the age of Twitter and other social media that have applied an extra layer of scrutiny on campaigns — instantly threatens to open a candidate up to charges of sour grapes.

The concession call isn’t going away overnight. None of the above examples would be notable unless the obligatory conversations still happened in the vast majority of cases.

But the next time a candidate loses a high stakes campaign, don’t think they will automatically pick up the phone.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence, then, that in the much-ballyhooed Netflix documentary, “Mitt,” which gave us a behind-the-scenes, personal glimpse of a failed presidential campaign, the most glaring omission was the concession call.

Too bad, because that’s one moment when a person who has spent months — years, really — telling us he’s fit to lead, actually gets a chance to prove it by setting the proper tone for the nation.

We didn’t see the phone call that Sen. John McCain made to President Obama in 2008. But we saw — for a fleeting moment, anyway — what it means to put the needs of a nation ahead of one’s pride.

He met a hostile audience when he offered supportive words to the man who’d just defeated him. The audience booed lustily.

“America today, is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time,” he said a few minutes later. “There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American as president of the United States.”

And the audience cheered.

We know now, of course, that he was wrong. Still, it was one of the nation’s greatest political speeches, and it gave the country the opportunity to unite. Given that opportunity, though, the country blew the chance.