Milbank writes an uncommonly severe prospectus for Obama's second term:
[I]t’s difficult to see anything ahead but a long and tedious slog: not a civil war, mercifully, but a political war of attrition.
The "civil war" reference is meant as a kind of presidential baseline by which Milbank compares Lincoln's historic first term and the magnificent hopes for his second to the tediousness of contemporary politics.
Lincoln was at that time [of his second inaugural] winning the Civil War and permanently abolishing slavery. Today, instead of great moral causes, we have ceaseless and petty bickering over paying federal debts.
The profoundest irony of Lincoln's presidential legacy is that it almost certainly would have suffered had he fulfilled it. The politics of Reconstruction were nearly as hostile as their antebellum predecessors, and Lincoln's pragmatically intended "charity" toward a readmitted South had him on a vicious collision course with the committed moralists of the day, the Radical Republicans. Had he served his second term, would Lincoln be remembered as fondly as he is? Probably not.
But, who knows? That's the problem with writing history that never transpired, just as it's a problem to write of a future that hasn't occurred--all tautologies considered, that is. Yet Milbank's gloominess is on to something real in foreseeing an endless "political war of attrition." While this is no civil war, of course, national politics do bear a grim resemblance to WWI's trench warfare. Each side is dug in, and neither seems particularly inspired to now try something completely different. Grand strategies and bold designs have degenerated into capturing a few yards of political territory, then surrenduring same, only to recapture the lost ground tomorrow, ad infinitum.
The tedium, the grind, the dispiriting monotony is worse than any blood spilled in a decisive showdown, because in the meantime we're hemorrhaging confidence in the nation's political institutions. And it's only that moment, that inescapable showdown, the timing of that decisive presidential strike against the GOP's unreconstructed nihilists that will immortalize Obama's second term--or his Democratic successor's first.