In the end, after the main vote tallies were reported and Americans had cheered or cussed the results, the 2012 presidential election campaign finished its long road in a familiar place. President Barack Obama will still be in the White House and Congress will still be divided.
For all the avalanche of spending, for all the truth-defying TV ads, this election did not turn out to be a generational moment of truth that picked a clear winner between two competing philosophical visions of government. That argument will continue.
Nor was this election the cliffhanger it was supposed to be. While the popular vote was close before finally going the president's way, Mr. Obama was a clear winner in the Electoral College tally before midnight. As for the supposed swing states, the Democrat took every one of them except North Carolina (although Florida -- and what is it about Florida and dysfunctional elections? -- leans Mr. Obama's way but Wednesday was still tallying its votes).
Yet Mr. Obama's victory was remarkable in its defiance of history. No incumbent president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 had won re-election in such a bad economy. How did he do it? While Mr. Obama has once again proved himself a formidable campaigner, he got help from an unlikely quarter -- challenger Mitt Romney and the Republican Party.
In the first place, the long drawn-out Republican primary season damaged the party's brand. The many debates turned into an exercise in candidates trying to out-extreme each other while making "moderate" seem like a dirty word. By the time Mr. Romney had emerged as the best of a bad lot, he had gone so far right that the path back to the middle -- where presidential elections are typically won -- was too far to negotiate.
Along the way, all the crucial constituencies that favored Mr. Obama on Tuesday -- including Latinos and women (especially single women) -- had been offended either in word or deed. Mr. Romney himself showed a patrician superiority to ordinary Americans -- not only in his unguarded remark about the mooching 47 percent but also in refusing to release enough tax returns and keeping secret key details of his plan to eliminate certain tax exemptions.
Moreover, the Republican Party did not completely sell its fiction that the soaring deficit and the bad economy were all Mr. Obama's doing. Many Americans had the common sense to acknowledge that the problems started on President George W. Bush's watch and they weren't inclined to choose the party that started the trouble to be the one to fix it. Moreover, many voters recognized that the economy is slowly improving, despite the constant doom and gloom preached by the GOP.
A party that could not win this election has serious questions to ask itself. If the Republicans continue as the party of the old, the grumpy, the inflexible and the Caucasian, demographics will be the party's death. The first thing it should do is what the Tea Party hates to do, compromise to get the work of the nation done (the same obligation confronts Mr. Obama and the Democrats).
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said of the election, "If there is a mandate, it is a mandate for both parties to find common ground and take steps together to help our economy grow and create jobs."
He should take his own advice. Mr. Obama won this war. The Republicans will lose the peace if they revert to being intransigent spoilers for another four years.