That support may be rooted in something far more substantive than Obama’s critics contend. While it’s certainly true that his speeches represent sweeping statements of vision—and not, until recently, laundry lists of policy proposals—he has also presented original and specific ideas about what he would do as President.
It could be argued, for instance, that Obama’s pledge to sit down face-to-face with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the most substantively meaningful plank in any candidate’s platform in 2008, a wholesale departure from the past 28 years of U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic—and from the cautiously conventional approach articulated by Hillary Clinton, who memorably branded Obama’s posture "naïve."
And when he talks about "ending the mind-set that got us into war," Obama raises the possibility of an administration whose global vision would not be shaped by the stale, nonpartisan national security establishment that has infected the thinking of both political parties for decades—and that helped convince an overwhelming bipartisan Congressional majority (Clinton included) to choose war in 2002.
But the real problem with sneering at the fervor that Obama has stirred is that it ignores how elections are won and how governing coalitions are built. The truth is that even voters who aren’t moved by Obama’s substantive appeal are still, by and large, favorably impressed by him and willing to at least consider voting for him.
In this sense, he can be likened to Ronald Reagan, who flunked all of the traditional tests of electability in 1980—he was one of the most ideologically extreme candidates ever nominated, he was ignorant of some basic policy details, and he was nearly 70 years old—but whose style, presence and wit connected with the masses and overrode all of those concerns. The term "Reagan Democrat" was born and he won in such an intimidating landslide that his political foes essentially let him enact whatever reforms he wanted for his first few months in office.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, calls to mind Walter Mondale, who in 1984 combated Reagan’s sunny vision with what Newsweek described as "a gigantic To-Do List, a leaden compendium of programs heaped one on another … as if he intended to crush his audiences in specifics."
Democrats have enjoyed simultaneous control of the White House and both houses of Congress for a grand total of two years since Jimmy Carter was voted out. Now, presented with a candidate who is inspiring record turnout and demonstrating broad appeal in some of the most Republican parts of the country, you’d think the excesses of a relatively small percentage his supporters would be the least of their concerns.