It was amusing last night and this morning to see pundits praising Michelle Obama’s speech while taking care to equate it to the one given last week by Ann Romney—both women, we were assured, had sought to build sympathy for their husband and build a connection with struggling voters. But this equivalency is absurd. Romney’s speech, like Obama’s, was delivered with verve and confidence, for which Romney, a newcomer to the big stage, deserves credit. But the speeches could hardly have been more diametrically opposed. In fact, when all is said and done, they may have laid out the stark choice in this election more clearly even than the speeches by the actual nominees.

Consider this passage from Ann Romney’s speech:

It’s true that Mitt has been successful at each new challenge he has taken on. It amazes me to see his history of success actually being attacked. Are those really the values that made our country great? As a mom of five boys, do we want to raise our children to be afraid of success? Do we send our children out in the world with the advice, “Try to do... okay?”
And let’s be honest. If the last four years had been more successful, do we really think there would be this attack on Mitt Romney’s success? Of course not.
Mitt will be the first to tell you that he is the most fortunate man in the world. He had two loving parents who gave him strong values and taught him the value of work. He had the chance to get the education his father never had. But as his partner on this amazing journey, I can tell you Mitt Romney was not handed success. He built it.

And this one from Michelle Obama’s:

Barack knows the American Dream because he’s lived it...and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like, or who we love. And he believes that when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity...you do not slam it shut behind you...you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.
So when people ask me whether being in the White House has changed my husband, I can honestly say that when it comes to his character, and his convictions, and his heart, Barack Obama is still the same man I fell in love with all those years ago.
He’s the same man who started his career by turning down high paying jobs and instead working in struggling neighborhoods where a steel plant had shut down, fighting to rebuild those communities and get folks back to work...because for Barack, success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.

Could you ask for a purer distillation of the two parties’ ids than those two passages? Well, you could maybe find it in the speeches given by the parties’ emerging Hispanic stars, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.

Rubio:

Mitt Romney knows America’s prosperity didn’t happen because our government simply spent more. It happened because our people used their own money to open a business. And when they succeed, they hire more people, who then invest or spend their money in the economy, helping others start a business and create jobs...

We are special because we’ve been united not by a common race or ethnicity. We’re bound together by common values. That family is the most important institution in society. That almighty God is the source of all we have.

Special, because we’ve never made the mistake of believing that we are so smart that we can rely solely on our leaders or our government.

Castro:

Now, like many of you, I watched last week’s Republican convention. They told a few stories of individual success. We all celebrate individual success. But the question is, how do we multiply that success? The answer is President Barack Obama.

Mitt Romney, quite simply, doesn’t get it. A few months ago he visited a university in Ohio and gave the students there a little entrepreneurial advice. “Start a business,” he said. But how? “Borrow money if you have to from your parents,” he told them. Gee, why didn’t I think of that? Some people are lucky enough to borrow money from their parents, but that shouldn’t determine whether you can pursue your dreams. I don’t think Governor Romney meant any harm. I think he’s a good guy. He just has no idea how good he’s had it.

We know that in our free market economy some will prosper more than others. What we don’t accept is the idea that some folks won’t even get a chance. And the thing is, Mitt Romney and the Republican Party are perfectly comfortable with that America. In fact, that’s exactly what they’re promising us.

Yet the political press is complaining that this campaign is petty and lacking in big themes. I don’t know—it seems to me that what we’re being presented with is more evidence that the parties in this country, which not long ago were disparate coalitions of competing factions, have grown ideologically coherent to the point where they make even Europe’s parliamentary parties look muddled by comparison. That’s a pretty good story, as is the story about what this means for governing in a country whose political system is not designed for such starkly opposed parties.

One final thought on Michelle Obama’s speech: not to take anything away from her, but it must be said that she simply had better and more credible material to work with than Ann Romney did. It’s easier to talk about the lessons learned from growing up working-class on the South Side and dating a penniless law student than it is to wax about the hardship of eating tuna fish and pasta as young marrieds when you were in fact “chipping away” at $600,000 in stock from your husband’s father. Our country may be turning into a plutocracy where the deepest pockets can buy elections, but one advantage those with modest roots still retain is in their campaign speechcraft.