Rip Van America will soon awake in a world that changed as the campaign spun. After a yearlong political binge that has consumed billions of dollars, oceans of national energy and attention, and the credibility of the country's two major political parties, old Rip has adjustments to make.

Peering out through a pulsating election hangover, Rip will perceive that while the United States was so self-absorbed, China accelerated its breathtaking run to become a global financial center, the world's manufacturing hub and the price-setting consumer of oil and other commodities.

China, India and Japan have been creating an economic platform to make this the Asian century, while U.S. resources, manpower and policy initiatives have been poured into the dangerous conflicts of the greater Middle East.

Vladimir Putin used his timeout from American scrutiny to bog down deeper in Chechnya and to knock the props out from a promising Russian financial recovery by dismembering the Yukos oil group. Western and much of Eastern Europe came together in a historic if still untested union of political equals.

These developments got a passing nod, if that, from the candidates. Even on Iraq, George W. Bush and John Kerry were neither comprehensive nor candid with the electorate. They covered over the centrality of Israel to American policy and international standing with competing platitudes or silence. While the Great Satan was navel-gazing, Iran and North Korea pursued their nuclear ambitions without hindrance.

Many will conclude that the United States and the world cannot afford an American campaign this long, shallow and expensive. And yet Campaign 2004 forced prospective voters (and perhaps, in private, even the candidates and their handlers) to focus on and think about serious issues. With the visible cost came important, intangible gain.

In its closing days, the campaign brought forth a vivid contrast worth exploring. It is not the contrast between Bush and Kerry as campaigners. There isn't, alas, much of one.

As they promised, Kerry and his chief aides came from behind to match Republican scare tactics, personal vilification and distortions blow for blow. The over-the-top Kerry treatment of the news story about missing explosives in Iraq and his second-guessing on the Battle of Tora Bora in the campaign's closing week established beyond question that he can keep up with the GOP's senior fear-mongers. And Bush's inept response equaled anything the Democrats have perpetrated.

The contrast is between today and the time when one party -- in recent years the Republicans -- waged campaigns that clearly won the sleaze sweepstakes while the other party remained clueless or even sought a somewhat higher road. That epoch seems headed for history's ash heap. Karl Rove, meet Bob Shrum.

Political consultants are, even more than most of us, products of the times in which they live. But it is no longer just party operatives who live by the low blow. This campaign has empowered the emergence of a permanent opposition in American politics that owes allegiance not to recognizable political philosophies, heroes or traditions but to the sneer and the art of denigration by the one-liner.

That is not to say that politicians do not deserve to be ridiculed or satirized when they stumble. It is to marvel at the absolute moral superiority -- expressed toward both Kerry and Bush -- and the unshakable certainty about distant events and complex societies that have been voiced in public speechifying and on op-ed pages and television news shows fake, semi-fake and real during this campaign.

If he wins, Kerry will inherit this permanent opposition, which could care less about the complexities of the choices that will confront him. The professionally snide are a self-regarding elite with an iron discipline of never being impressed by anything outside their own circle of cynicism.

The campaign ends with pollsters and pundits genuinely uncertain of the outcome. Just as the definition of the winner of a chess game is said to be the person who makes the next-to-last mistake, this campaign may now hinge on who errs last.

"It is now a choice between the inane (Kerry) and the inept (Bush)," says one cynic I know. He predicts the electorate will chose ineptitude over untrustworthiness. I have my doubts.

Bush has fought to increase turnout in safe GOP districts to avoid a repeat of the 2000 electoral morass. But Kerry gained late in states with big electoral votes. Don't be totally amazed if the Democrats and Republicans switch places in the popular vote and electoral college results, as they have been doing in campaign tactics, this time around.

jimhoagland@washpost.com