It seems hard to believe that the election was only three short weeks ago, and that even as the results were coming in proving Nate Silver (the much maligned New York Times blogger) right and the pillars of conservatism (Dick Morris, George Will and, of course, Karl Rove) completely wrong, Republicans thought they had it won and Mitt Romney had only one speech prepared.

Could that have been only three weeks ago?

Was it only three weeks ago that Republicans still believed in no new taxes and no “amnesty” for “illegal aliens”?

Was it only three weeks ago that Romney was the head of the Republican Party?

Not to defend the man, but he didn’t lose in the kind of landslide that forced Democrats to change direction after losing in 1980, 1984 and 1988. It was a two-and-a-half-point election. The lopsided electoral vote was significantly shaped by close contests in battleground states.

Now, Republican Party leaders (and I mean the top of the heap of elected officials and highly paid talkers) are in one of the hastiest retreats I’ve seen since the 1980s.

Is this the party that for the past four years has been insisting that all Americans — and not just those making less than $250,000 — deserve tax cuts lest economic growth be stymied? Is this the party that embraced the Arizona law targeting people who “appear” to be illegal immigrants?

Not this week.

The obvious reading of a two-and-a-half-point election is that the only mandate it gives the winner is to pull the country together, not to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. President Barack Obama managed to take the former and turn it into the latter, boxing Republican leaders into a negotiation from which they cannot hope to get what they turned down in the last round of talks.

Grover Norquist, the godfather of the “no tax” movement, is finding himself fighting to remain relevant, while Sean Hannity has bought into what used to be known as “amnesty” (even though it never was), and Weekly Standard-bearer Bill Kristol says “it won’t kill the country” to raise taxes on millionaires. Three weeks and two-and-a-half points go a long way.

Can it last?

Maybe. Not all Republicans are going gently into the night. Laura Ingraham is signing off of her radio show temporarily, but she’s not giving up the fight. Responding to those who have called on Republicans to moderate their stance, she says, “Now that is depressing.”

My guess is that she isn’t the only one. The president is in “divide and conquer” mode, and it’s working. What he’s dividing is the Republican Party, talkers and all. I can’t imagine that in a Congress that is increasingly divided between ideologues of both parties (thank political districting for that) the Republican members are all ready to turn on a dime because some of its leaders think that might be necessary to avoid the public wrath. National polls may say that Republicans will be blamed if we go off the fiscal cliff, but that doesn’t mean individual Republican members in overwhelmingly Republican districts will be held responsible.

The good news for the president is that he doesn’t need Republican unity. He’s not triangulating the way President Bill Clinton did. What he needs is enough Republican votes (and it’s not that many when you start doing the math) to give a “deal” a majority in the House and a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate.

And if that produces a Republican civil war, a party divided, an ideological battle in which Republicans are embroiled in their own internal blame game? To paraphrase Ingraham, now that will be depressing — for Republicans.

— Bestselling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.