WASHINGTON - President Bush has posted a re-election victory that amounts to a political nightmare for the opposition Democrats.
Mr. Bush's popular vote margin of more than 3.5 million over Sen. John Kerry, regardless of the relative closeness of the Electoral College vote, settles the contention of the 2000 election that in trailing Al Gore by more than half a million popular votes, he was not the people's choice.
At the same time, it leaves the Democrats to seek excuses again for their failure, despite a record party mobilization and voter turnout and without a clearly recognizable leader looking to 2008. The defeat of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota was a particular blow.
Further, Republican gains in both the House and Senate strengthen the president's hand for a second-term agenda that highlights his stay-the-course pledge in the Iraq war and the broader war on terrorism. Mr. Kerry's charges that Mr. Bush was failing in both didn't convince most voters.
On the domestic side, the president also will be encouraged to push his low-tax formula for economic recovery and such initiatives as enacting private retirement accounts, disparaged by Mr. Kerry and the Democrats as privatization of Social Security.
But on both fronts, the critical question is whether Mr. Bush, in a second term, will finally demonstrate what he promised and failed to deliver in the first term - to be "a uniter, not a divider."
As he acknowledged during the campaign, his greatest first-term disappointment was his inability to achieve the same sort of bipartisanship he had accomplished with Democrats as governor of Texas. By any measure, that failure as president was of his own making, especially after the brief bipartisanship in Congress inspired by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Instead of seeking accommodation with the opposition party, Mr. Bush chose repeatedly to go head-to-head against it in the process of engineering a Republican success in the 2002 congressional elections. He diligently followed the base-strengthening strategy of his resident political guru, Karl Rove, in playing to the GOP's conservative core on a range of issues.
The same strategy governed his re-election campaign, and in using it, he learned from the re-election defeat of his father in 1992, which followed the senior Mr. Bush's breaking of his "Read my lips: no new taxes" pledge that so alienated much of that base. The huge Republican turnout that competed successfully with Tuesday's record Democratic get-out-the-vote operation appeared to make the difference.
A second term will give Mr. Bush an opportunity to turn the page and make a fresh start in dealing with the opposition. But at the same time, the temptation will be great for him to follow his demonstrated first-term penchant for my-way-or-the-highway politics.
In 2000, despite the president's narrow and disputed Electoral College victory, he took the result as a mandate. His first term was marked by a high-risk bulldog approach at home with his huge tax cuts and, in foreign policy, with his invasion of Iraq, rolling over the Democrats in Congress in both cases. Coming off the public affirmation of re-election, he will have more reason to see his approach again as a mandate, especially with that wide popular-vote majority.
Mr. Kerry, in his concession speech, expressed the hope that with the campaign over, "we can begin the healing." America, he said, "is in need of unity, and longing for a larger measure of compassion. I hope President Bush will advance those values in the years ahead. I pledge to do my part to try to bridge the partisan divide."
For his part, the president in his victory speech told all those who voted for Mr. Kerry: "I will do all I can do to deserve your trust, to reach out to the whole nation. ... When we come together and work together, there is no limit to the greatness of America."
Such words of conciliation are expected after every presidential election. In the Democrats' immediate post-election disappointment, and in the flush of the Republican victory, it remains to be seen whether George W. Bush really means to be "a uniter, not a divider" the second time around, and whether the Democrats will be willing collaborators in the effort.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.