Perhaps it is not surprising that these two men, so physically as well as temperamentally different, are being treated as if they were, well, black and white. Indeed, to judge by what is already being written about this race, it is a contest between a pacifist and a Vietnam vet, a tax-and-spender and a free-marketeer, a conservative's conservative and a liberal's liberal.
One of the deeply weird things about this already extremely weird campaign is that the two candidates have, both, in the past, appealed to precisely the same group of people: moderates, independents, non-partisan voters, whatever you want to call them.
Except, of course, that it isn't. In fact, one of the deeply weird things about this already extremely weird campaign is that the two candidates have, both, in the past, appealed to precisely the same group of people: moderates, independents, non-partisan voters, whatever you want to call them. Whereas the past two or three presidential races have pitted Establishment Republicans (Bush, Dole) against Establishment Democrats (Gore, Kerry), both McCain and Obama have made their names by being something different.
True, McCain is not exactly a man of the Left. He doesn't object much to guns, opposes abortion, and has a Vietnam vet's way with swear words that would be unacceptable at most liberal dinner parties.
But he has nevertheless defied his own party's mainstream on a number of issues, putting his name on legislation designed to deal with campaign finance reform (together with Democrat Russ Feingold), climate change (together with Democrat Joe Lieberman) and, most defiantly of all, immigration reform (together with very liberal Democrat Teddy Kennedy).
His Congressional career has been focused on a search for compromise solutions, which means he has been supported by Democrats. He has happily voted against his own party on many occasions. As a result he is not, to put it politely, a beloved figure among Senate Republicans.
As for his alleged hawkishness, don't forget that, at the time of the invasion, McCain's views on Iraq were absolutely centrist and mainstream, differing little from the views of, say, Hillary Clinton. Since then, they have at least remained consistent. He was for the war; he criticised its execution very harshly; he now thinks we should stay and fix the mess. This position is not, in American politics, especially extreme.
Obama's career is a lot shorter than McCain's, and he doesn't therefore have the same kind of legislative record. According to the people who keep track of these things, Obama has voted with the liberal Left during most of his brief Senate career.
But that isn't how he talks, and that isn't the core of his appeal. Remember, this is a man who became famous thanks to a speech he gave at the Democratic Convention of 2004, arguing that the divisions between "red" Republican states and "blue" Democratic states is not as deep as it is sometimes made out to be.
"We worship an awesome God in the blue states," said Obama, "and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are all one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."
It was a great line at an otherwise dull convention, great above all because it sounded different: different from the Clintons, different from the angry partisan language used by too many other Democrats.
At least in the early part of the campaign, before Hillary drew him into some racism-tinged arguments, he tried to position himself as a man beyond traditional racial and political conflicts. And, indeed, many of his primary votes seem to have been cast by people who otherwise consider themselves independents, who are sick of "politics as usual", who dislike the inevitable partisan mudslinging--or who, in many cases, have never voted before at all.
What that leaves us with, though, are two candidates who don't primarily appeal to their party's respective "bases". It was Clinton, not Obama, who sucked up the votes of the traditional blue-collar Democrats.
And it was Mike Huckabee, not McCain, who won the votes of the traditional conservative Republicans. Both candidates have, it is true, done some pandering to their respective bases: McCain has made a few nods to the Republican Right, Obama has used anti-free-trade rhetoric that he is surely too intelligent to believe in. But neither, essentially, is a creature of his party's establishment.
What that also leaves us with, though, are two candidates who appeal to the same unpredictable centrists and an election that is profoundly unpredictable as a result. Don't believe any of the opinion polls that will come out in the next couple of days: everything about this campaign could look different in a month or two.
Strange though it sounds--and I am not the first to note this oddity--it is even the case that both men would make ideal vice-presidents for the other. Obama is just what McCain needs on his ticket, if you think about it: a young, black, energetic, Democrat willing to defy party taboos.
At the same time, McCain is just what Obama needs on his ticket: an old, experienced, maverick Republican with a track record of appealing to centrists. Too bad they can't run together, saving the rest of us the strange choice between them.
Anne Applebaum is an adjunct fellow at AEI.