This Primary Is No Style Contest

BALTIMORE—Since Barack Obama declared his candidacy just over a year ago, the overweening tendency—in the media and in the world beyond—has been to frame his battle with Hillary Clinton in terms of the tension between style and substance.

This idea has been expressed in two forms: doubts about whether Mr. Obama’s sheen of rhetorical prowess hides a lack of substantiality beneath, and assertions that the Democratic contest is being fought over essentially cosmetic differences.

As far back as 10 months ago, the Associated Press reported that “voices are growing louder asking the question: Is Barack Obama all style and little substance?”

And the headlines this year have included the following: “In Iowa, Dems Vary on Style, Not Substance” (CBSNews.com, Jan. 1); “Democrats Emphasize Style Over Substance” (Boston Globe, Jan. 8).

But in this campaign, a dichotomy that places serious matters of policy on one side and the supposed fripperies of presentation on the other is utterly false.

In Mr. Obama’s case, the style is indivisible from the substance. His optimistic oratory and his near-fetish for inclusivity lie at the core of his candidacy. They signify profound differences in approach and philosophy from Mrs. Clinton. The vitality of those differences is even now underappreciated because it fails to fit the traditional framework of a left-right struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party.

Yes, Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have very similar policy proposals. But that is not the same thing as having identical beliefs.

Mr. Obama’s speech here to a capacity crowd at a huge downtown arena on Feb. 11, for example, was awash with the sort of rosy language that it is almost impossible to imagine falling from Mrs. Clinton’s lips.

Referring to his feelings as he launched his candidacy, Mr. Obama said, “I was betting on the fact that Americans were hungry for a new kind of politics, hungry for something different—that they were tired of a politics that was all about tearing each other down and more interested in a politics of lifting the country up.”

Coining a new term for Republicans he believes he can convert to his cause, the Illinois senator added, “We’re gonna get some Obamacans in this election. We’re gonna get some independents. We’re gonna build a working majority. … That’s how you win an election. Not by turning people off but by bringing ’em in. Not by being angry all the time, but by being hopeful.”

Mr. Obama even managed to couch one of his frequently expressed criticisms of Mrs. Clinton in terms of that same hope.

Referring to an initially unnamed opponent who accused him of “peddling false hopes” and needing a “reality check,” he said, “Senator Clinton said that. She did! The implication is that somehow I’m naïve. It’s true that I talk about hope all the time. I have to talk about hope because—let’s face it—the odds of me standing here were very slim.”

Mr. Obama’s supporters seemed to respond in kind, speaking of him afterward in similarly naked emotional terms. Lamar Shields, a Chicago native now living in Baltimore, said as he left the arena, “I think people want someone who feels connected to them—that feels their hunger, feels their pain. And I think people can relate to hope. It’s the only thing that brings people together.”

Stacie Laverne, also of Baltimore, who attended the rally with her 5-year-old son, said, “This is all about emotion.”

It’s easy to see these reactions as overblown and Mr. Obama’s appeal as fundamentally chimerical. He can sometimes seem more like a character drawn from The West Wing than a real candidate for the Oval Office—sometimes, in the midst of the soaring rhetoric, the charisma and the call to nobility, one can feel like it’s only a matter of time before grandiose music strikes up and aerial footage of a sun-drenched Washington Monument appears as a backdrop.

But for the most part, Mr. Obama has managed to tread the fine line between aspiration and bombast successfully. His message, put simply, is that politics can be better than it is, that the rules can be changed.

Mrs. Clinton doesn’t believe the game can be changed, but holds out the promise that she can play it better than anyone else. Mrs. Clinton’s emphasis on toughness is rooted in this grimmer worldview. On the same day that Mr. Obama spoke in downtown Baltimore, Mrs. Clinton proudly referred to herself at an event as “battle-scarred,” and said she could go “toe-to-toe” with John McCain in a presidential election. “A lot of these fights are fights you have to have,” she said. “You can’t walk away from them.”

If either were elected president, the divergent mind-sets would self-evidently lead to a very different approach to governing: One would seek to persuade and co-opt some ideological opponents; the other would want to outmaneuver and defeat them.

All this is at stake when we talk of the candidates’ differences of style. It’s anything but a minor matter.

This Primary Is No Style Contest